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‘Govt must depoliticise fight against rights abuses’

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THE latest report by the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum on the state of affairs in 2019 shows that there are rising cases of human rights abuses in Zimbabwe despite calls for reforms from local and international rights defenders.

INTERVIEW BY MIRRIAM MANGWAYA

Dewa Mavhinga, a Zimbabwean human rights lawyer working as southern Africa director for the global rights watchdog, Human Rights Watch (HRW), says Zimbabwe is doing badly on the human rights index under President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s leadership.

Mavhinga, the co-founder of the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute, says the government is fuelling human rights abuses by failing to prosecute perpetrators. He also ranked the Gukurahundi massacres as the worst and “horrendous” human rights abuse in post-independent Zimbabwe history.

The following are excerpts of an interview between NewsDay (ND) reporter Mirriam Mangwaya and Mavhinga (DM) on issues of human rights in Zimbabwe.

ND: What role do you play in ensuring human rights are upheld in Zimbabwe?

DM: I investigate conditions of human rights which are provided for in the Zimbabwean Constitution. I then compile reports for high-level advocacy with the government of Zimbabwe and other policymakers to fight violation of constitutionally-given rights.

I work together with local human rights partners such as the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum and the Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights on research and advocacy campaigns.

I have researched and written over a dozen human rights reports on Zimbabwe, including the 2009 HRW report entitled, Diamonds in the Rough: Human Rights Abuses in Zimbabwe’s Marange Diamond Fields. I have also researched and campaigned for the ending of child marriages in Zimbabwe, promotion and protection of the rights of widows, education rights and ending of child labour on tobacco farms.

ND: You have more than 10 years experience in research and advocacy in Zimbabwe as well as in southern Africa, how can you describe the state of human rights in Zimbabwe?

DM: For a country not at war like Zimbabwe, which was said to be an unfolding democracy and a new dispensation in November 2017 following the ouster of the late former leader Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe is doing terribly on the human rights front under President Emmerson Mnangagwa.

According to the World Food Programme, 60% of the population, which is 8,6 million people, faces starvation and needs food aid, thus a violation of the right to food. Massive corruption and bad management of the economy have resulted in extreme poverty, which directly leads to gross violations of the socio-economic rights of ordinary Zimbabweans.

ND: What steps have been taken by HRW to curb human rights violations by State and non-State actors?

DM: At HRW, we have documented the horrific human rights abuses perpetrated by the Zimbabwean security forces, including the August 2018 and January 2019 killings.

We directly engaged the Zimbabwean authorities including Mnangagwa, to ensure justice for the victims of the abuses prevails. The HRW has challenged the Zimbabwean government to invite international human rights bodies to independently investigate allegations of abduction and torture of government critics.

ND: What can you say about the Motlanthe Commission report, particularly on efforts by the government to implement the recommendations from the inquiry following the August 2018 killings?

DM: The government has practically ignored the recommendations made by the Motlanthe Commission, recommendations that go a long way in improving the human rights situation in the country and in compensating victims of those abuses.

There is no justification for lack of action by the government, especially after spending a fortune in setting up and funding an international team to investigate the August 2018 killings, which the Motlanthe Commission found to have been caused by the security forces.

We have called on President Mnangagwa to fully implement the recommendations of the Motlanthe Commission, which called for prosecution of perpetrators and compensation for victims and their families.

ND: What do you recall as the worst human rights abuse in Zimbabwe?

DM: Historically, and by volume, I would say the Gukurahundi massacres in the Midlands and Matabeleland provinces in the early 1980s were the most horrendous and horrific.

These are followed by the 2005 Operation Murambatsvina that displaced and made homeless some 700 000 people. Then comes the chaotic and violent farm invasions of 2002, and the 2008 politically-motivated electoral violence that left over 200 MDC party supporters dead.

The list would not be complete without mentioning the 2008 State-sponsored violence in the Marange diamond fields and, under Mnangagwa’s presidency and the escalation in unresolved cases of abductions and torture of government critics without the arrest of any of the abductors.

In the last year alone, over 70 critics of the government have been abducted and tortured by suspected State security agents.

ND: What are the obstacles for human rights defenders in trying to ensure rights are respected in Zimbabwe?

DM: The major obstacle for human rights defenders in Zimbabwe is the government through security forces who have politicised human rights and thwarted activism.

The ruling Zanu PF party has taken a partisan view that human rights promotion is an advancement of the opposition, which is wrong.

Human rights work should be advanced and enjoyed by everyone, regardless of political affiliation. The majority of those who abuse citizens are partisan State security agents who act with impunity and disregard the law, because they are not prosecuted for offending. The government has also enacted several legal tools to block human rights defenders and criminalise their work.

ND: What do you think the government should do to promote human rights?

DM: The government of Zimbabwe should depoliticise human rights discourse and acknowledge that human rights are constitutional. Although Mnangagwa has repeatedly pledged commitment to human rights reforms, his administration, in fact, remains highly intolerant of basic rights, peaceful dissent, and free expression.

His (Mnangagwa) administration should urgently set up an independent complaints mechanism provided for in the Constitution to receive and investigate complaints from the public about misconduct by members of the security forces.

Authorities should also order prompt investigation and prosecution of human rights abuses over the last two years. The government should also take urgent steps to reform the security forces, end their involvement in partisan politics, and ensure that they act professionally and in a rights-respecting manner.

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