Important legislative business awaits Parly

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The House of Assembly and the Senate resumed sitting on Tuesday this week with the major highlight being the re-instatement of the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission Bill and Electoral Amendment Bill on the Order Paper.

These two pieces of legislation have a huge bearing on the success or otherwise of the electoral process.

The Bills were introduced in the last session of Parliament, but could not be passed when the session came to an end in September 2011.

Any motion on the Order Paper will lapse on prorogation of Parliament and can only be reinstated on the agenda upon motions being moved and approved by the House.

The Acting Minister of Justice and Legal Affairs Emmerson Mnangagwa has since done that, paving the way for the two Bills to be debated in the House of Assembly.

The Portfolio Committee on Justice, Legal, Constitutional and Parliamentary Affairs is ready to present its report on the Electoral Bill following nationwide public hearings, some of which were disrupted.

There are reports that the Global Political Agreement principals have agreed to do away with the proposed polling station-based voters’ roll in the Bill.

While this is a welcome development, we await to see what other proposed amendments by the committee will be taken on board by the Executive.

The Bill still needs to be adjusted in order to have a good enabling law for elections.

Areas of concern include restrictions on funding for voter education by civic groups, executive dominance on the Observer Accreditation Committee, failure to give Zimbabwe Electoral Commission sole and exclusive responsibility for the registration of voters and the maintenance of the voters’ roll, absence of provisions to ensure the courts expedite dispute resolution, lack of specific punitive sanctions against media firms that do not provide fair media coverage to all political parties and barring of Diaspora voting.

The Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission Bill is now generally a good piece of legislation that should easily pass in Parliament after Justice minister Patrick Chinamasa agreed to accommodate some of the reservations from the Justice Portfolio Committee, Parliamentary Legal Committee, civic society and interest groups.

In an unprecedented show of unity, the House of Assembly last year refused to fast-track the Bill despite attempts by political parties represented in Parliament to whip their members into line.

The main recommendations arising from the work of the Justice Portfolio Committee and Parliamentary Legal Committee included widening the scope of human rights violations to cover all issues covered by international human rights instruments to which Zimbabwe is a party; non-interference by ministers in the appointment and disciplining of commission staff members; submission of commission reports directly to Parliament and not via the Justice minister granting the Commission retrospective mandate in its investigations and not begin from February 13 2009, and revisiting the clause which gives the Justice minister power to refuse information to the commission on the basis of such information being prejudicial to “State interests”.

The committee recommended that such “State interests” should be clearly defined or the provision removed totally as it was open to abuse.

From these recommendations, Chinamasa agreed to revisit the definition of human rights violations to include those violations relating to an international human rights instrument even if the law domesticating such instrument did not expressly confer jurisdiction on the commission.

The import of the previous definition was that what amounted to a human rights violation would not be the subject matter of the commission’s work simply on account of the fact that the legal instrument concerned was silent that the commission can investigate that matter.

The other issue that Chinamasa agreed to address relates to visitors to Zimbabwe. The Bill defined “visitor” in a very restrictive manner such that certain categories of persons who would be in Zimbabwe, could have their rights violated without legal redress.

The commission would equally be constrained to investigate their matters on account of the restrictive definition. With the proposed amendment, foreigners can now make a complaint to the commission if their rights are violated while in Zimbabwe.

Chinamasa proposed to amend clause 6, which originally provided for the appointment of the executive secretary to the commission in consultation with the ministers responsible for Justice and of Finance.

This was viewed as an improper and unnecessary intrusion into the independence of the commission by the Executive.

It is proposed to amend this clause by simply describing the qualifications of the executive secretary.

This, therefore, leaves the commission to determine its staffing issues without external interference.

A significant climbdown is on clause 12 which empowered Chinamasa to bar the disclosure of certain evidence either by the commission or by the complainant in the “public interest”.

This clause gave the minister too much power and an unnecessary intrusion into the operational independence of the commission. The proposed amendment is for such evidence which is in the “public interest” to be received in camera.

Proposals not taken on board by the minister relate to the removal of commissioners, presentation of reports, mobilising of funds and the retrospective mandate of the commission in its investigations.

We wait to see what other changes will be made during the committee stage when the Bill is considered clause by clause.

The other pieces of legislation related to the electoral process that Parliament should tackle include the private member Bill to amend the Urban Councils Act which has since been gazetted, the private member Bill to amend the Public Order and Security Act, which is currently stuck in the Senate and a private member Bill to amend section 121 of the Criminal Procedure and Evidence Act.

Of course there will be the important Constitutional Bill to be debated and approved by Parliament.

John Makamure is executive director of the Southern African Parliamentary Support Trust writing in his personal capacity. Feedback: john.makamure@gmail.com