The long-awaited Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission Bill has now been gazetted, paving the way for the enactment of a legal framework to govern the operations of this very important human rights body.
The Commission assumes greater importance as we head towards elections, which promise to be another bruising encounter characterised by rising political temperatures and widespread violation of human rights.
A fully functional and independent Commission plays an important role to promote and protect people’s political, social, environmental and economic rights.
Despite being established more than 18 months ago, the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission had failed to function effectively due to the absence of an appropriate policy and legal framework.
Why it has taken all this long for the legislation to be crafted only the responsible authorities can answer.
Even the highly controversial Livingstone Report by the SADC Facilitator, South African President Jacob Zuma, to the Organ Summit of March 31 2011 expressed its concern on the problems bedeviling the Commission. Zuma said:
“The Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission was also established. However, the absence of enabling legislation is undermining the effectiveness of the Human Rights Commission.
The Commission also suffers from inadequate resources, human and material, including funding.”
The gazetting of the Bill means it has automatically been referred to the relevant portfolio committee – in this case that of Justice, Legal, Constitutional and Parliamentary Affairs headed by MDC-T’s Douglas Mwonzora.
The committee is expected to scrutinise it and invite submissions from civic society organisations, individual members of the public and other interested groups.
A report will then be compiled for presentation to the House during Second Reading Stage of the Bill.
The rules of Parliament give the committee 14 days to report to the House. With the House of Assembly only resuming business on July 18, there is sufficient time for the committee to consult widely and carry out a thorough analysis of the Bill in order to present a well-informed report in the House.
The Parliamentary Legal Committee, chaired by MDC-T’s Shepherd Mushonga, is also tasked with examining whether or not any provisions of the Bill violate the Constitution.
If so, the committee will issue an adverse report. It is important therefore for civic society to take an active interest in this Bill and engage the relevant committees of Parliament in order in the end to have a good law and an effective Commission.
The Bill describes human rights violations as any actions that violate the Declaration of Rights in the Constitution or any international human rights instrument that Zimbabwe is a party to and has domesticated as part of its laws.
It is the duty of Parliament through its committees to ensure that if there any important international conventions on human rights that Zimbabwe is not a party to or has not ratified, this is done as a matter of urgency in order to give the Human Rights Commission more teeth and fulfill its functions as stipulated in the proposed law.
One such convention is the International Convention against Torture, which Zimbabwe has signed but is still to ratify.
The day-to-day activities of the Commission are headed by an Executive Secretary, who is appointed by the Commission. It is however on the appointment of other staff members that I have a problem with.
The Bill says other staff shall be employed in consultation with the Minister of Justice and the minister responsible for Finance.
The same applies to the engagement of consultants. Why ministers should be involved in such administrative duties pertaining to the appointment of staff I am not sure.
This should be left entirely to the executive secretary and the Commission. The involvement of ministers interferes with the independence of the Commission.
A human rights commission can only be effective if it is truly independent in its operations. There must be total absence of political interference in its work. Clause 7 of the proposed legislation says:
“Neither the State nor any person, body, organ, agency or institution belonging to or employed by the State, a local authority or otherwise, shall interfere with, hinder or obstruct the Commission, its Commissioners or any member of staff of the Commission, in the exercise or performance of its, his or her functions”.
This is very good on paper. The proposed law however does not go far enough to say what happens if there has been such interference by some organs of the State.
The Bill should have included strong penalties to deter culprits.
One other issue I have a problem with relates to the whole question of reporting. Clause 8 says the Commission shall no later than sixty days after the end of each financial year, submit to the Minister of Justice an annual report on its operations and activities during the preceding financial year.
In addition, the Commission shall submit to the minister any other report, and provide him or her with any other information that he or she may require with regard the operations and activities of the Commission.
This is a retrogressive clause as far as trying to promote the independence of the Commission is concerned.
So while the gazetting of the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission Bill is most welcome, there is still substantial room for improvement if we are to come up with the best policy and legal framework that fully promotes and protects the social, political, environmental and economic rights of Zimbabweans.
John Makamure is the executive director of the Southern African Parliamentary Support Trust writing in his personal capacity.