Interview: ‘African countries must condemn Zim atrocities’

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ZIMBABWE’S human rights record was on Wednesday reviewed at a meeting held in Geneva, Switzerland, for the first time under President Emmerson Mnangagwa.

Justice minister Ziyambi Ziyambi read the national report that formed the basis of the assessment by the United Nations Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review (UPR) assessment before over 70 countries proposed recommendations on Zimbabwe.

NewsDay Weekender deputy news editor Nqobani Ndlovu (ND) later interviewed the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum executive director Musa Kika (MK) for insights into the whole process. Below are excerpts of the interview.

ND: Can you briefly tell us, what is the UPR process?
MK: The UPR is a peer-review process instituted by the United Nations (UN) through the UN Human Rights Council. The Human Rights Council has set up a UPR working group that is responsible for evaluating countries’ compliance with the national and global human rights standards. A country must go for an evaluation after every five years. So, Wednesday was the 14th session of the UPR working group.

It is the third cycle because it is the third time being evaluated. The last time was in 2011 which was the first time, then 2016, and now 2022. The session that happened on Wednesday was supposed to happen in November 2021, but was postponed due to COVID-19.

The UPR process is whereby the working group, which is composed of the membership of the UN, reviews the situation in a country using three reports. The first is the one compiled by government, the second is by the UN bodies, the special rapporteur, special mechanisms bodies, and the human rights commissioners. The third report is made up of material that has been put together by stakeholders that include the national human rights institutions, such as the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission and civil society organisations (CSOs)’ submissions, in which case the Forum, together with other CSOs in Zimbabwe, put together a report that was submitted to the process.

ND: What is your general comment about the national report presented by Justice minister Ziyambi Ziyambi?
MK: The national report did touch on several issues that are alive in the country now. Unfortunately, the national report turned to whitewashing the human rights situation. It was painting a glorious picture of human rights in Zimbabwe. That national report alone, without reading other reports or without knowing the situation in Zimbabwe, you would think that Zimbabwe is heaven on earth.

It reported mainly on what government was doing, sometimes inaccurately. There was very little emphasis on what government has failed to do or has neglected deliberately. For example, there was a statement that no single journalist has been arrested for practising journalism. We know that is not true because there are several reports that have been made about that. We now have the Private Voluntary Organisations (PVO) Bill which has been gazetted and seeks to restrict the work of CSOs.

Government did not even speak about the effects of that Bill. It went on to claim that the Bill was created after widespread consultations, including the civil society. We know it’s false, none of us in the civil society were ever consulted. There were several other lies and misleading statements in the report.

The report also did not speak about Judiciary interference and the Chief Justice Luke Malaba case. It spoke about the President appointing judges to the superior courts last year and all. It did not speak about the controversies about Constitutional Amendment No 2 and government’s refusal to comply with the outcome of the public consultations. The report had many misrepresentations of the true state of affairs in Zimbabwe.

ND: Given the structure of the review process, do you think there is still an opportunity to highlight the issues that you said government deliberately omitted?
MK: Unfortunately, the structure of the review process now does not have an opportunity for the civil society to be there in the meeting and speak or respond directly to what the State said. Perhaps, that is something that should be considered so that the civil society will be in the room so that it responds when governments make their reports. This will create dialogue and the world will be accurately informed. Other countries may not be able to tackle directly issues reported by other governments.

Yes, we had the opportunity to make our submissions, which were part of what was considered on Wednesday. Those submissions will be captured in the actual report to be released in a few days’ time. The opportunities are there for us to continue interacting with the UN on special mechanisms that include the rapporteurs, treaty bodies, and the Human Rights Council. The opportunities are there for us to continue monitoring the human rights situation in the country and compile reports to the UN and to anyone who cares.

ND: Looking at recommendations made by other countries during the assessment of Zimbabwe, what can you say were the major issues?
MK: There were a lot of issues raised. I think the number one issue that emerged was the issue of the convention against torture. More than half of the countries that spoke raised the issue. Zimbabwe has refused to ratify the convention, yet torture is quite prevalent in the country.

There is torture in detention, torture done by the police when they are doing their patrols, torture done by the army, we have torture that is outside the State institutions, the political side, opposition activists have been tortured, and our laws in Zimbabwe are not adequate.

Unfortunately, Zimbabwe is refusing to ratify saying that the country has enough laws already. This is not true. One wonders if we have enough laws, why are we refusing to ratify and comply? So, there is a reason why government refuses to comply. It is because there will be further obligations.

The issue of ill-treatment of human rights defenders, particularly persecution, was raised several times by several countries. The issue of shrinking of civic space through laws such as the PVO Bill was also raised. The exercise of civil-political rights, particularly free speech and assembly, and the right to demonstrate and petition were also raised.

The issue of the meddling into the Judiciary by the Executive was raised several times. The issue of child marriages was quite prevalent because it is an issue that is a problem in Zimbabwe. We have not set up a law that criminalises such acts for now, but there is a Bill that is being considered by Parliament, the Marriages Bill. It has not yet passed.

Our concern is that some of these issues are repeat issues. They were raised in the 2011 review, raised in the 2016 review, and now. There has been no traction over a period of 11 years.

ND: Are there some issues that you think should also have been discussed during the review process?
MK: I think the review process was quite comprehensive, but the issue of elections was not widely discussed. There was only one question raised on by-elections. It was raised as an advance question by one of the countries, but the minister did respond to that. We have by-elections on March 26. He (Ziyambi) gave COVID-19 as the reason why we did not conduct by-elections on time.

The issue of electoral reforms was not deliberated, and the country has now made efforts to comply with recommendations made by observer missions after the 2013 and 2018 general elections. The report by government was silent on that, even the oral presentations by the minister. We have by-elections and then harmonised elections coming soon. Knowing Zimbabwe, the graph of human rights violations will be high during the period, particularly civil and political rights violations.

ND: During the review, mainly Western countries raised concern over human rights abuses in Zimbabwe. Very few African countries expressed similar concerns. Are civic organisations only targeting the West, ignoring African countries?
MK: Civil society has been doing a lot to bring governance issues to the attention of African countries. At the Forum, we have written to the Dean of African ambassadors here in Zimbabwe, seeking an audience and trying and present documents, but unfortunately, they have not been forthcoming.

The problem that we have seen with African governance is that they have not been keen to say things as they are. They tend to be very diplomatic with their language and approach. Very few African countries on Wednesday spoke directly about issues that are on the ground. Kenya is a good example. It joined other countries outside Africa and spoke about torture, false disappearances and made recommendations around that. But a couple of other African countries spoke about what we would see as soft issues such as child marriages, gender-based violence, domestic violence, health, and education.

There are very important rights, but these are seen to be less controversial compared to civil, political, judicial interference, human rights defenders, and torture. The reality is that we have a lot of work to do as a civil society. We urge African governments to pay attention. I don’t think it serves us any good for us to cover up for each other as African countries. Our problems nowadays are transboundary, cross-boundary.

If Zimbabwe’s human rights record is bad, it is going to affect South Africa, Botswana, Zambia, not just socially, but economically. We now have migration issues in South Africa because of problems in Zimbabwe, for example. We hope African governments will become sincere and stop this brotherhood in the oppression of human rights.

ND: Some African countries raised concern that the Western world imposed sanctions on Zimbabwe, thus depriving citizens of their right to enjoy socio-economic rights, what is your comment on that?
MK: It is not many countries that spoke about that, I think they were very few countries including Iran, China, and one or two countries from Africa. The government of Zimbabwe used sanctions as a finger to hide behind. The minister gave three explanations on why Zimbabwe may not have really performed in terms of human rights.

First, the impact of COVID-19, second, the impact of climate change, and lastly, sanctions. So, sanctions appeared as the justification for Zimbabwe, the reality on the ground is, most human rights violations in Zimbabwe have nothing to do with sanctions. Correcting the human rights violations in Zimbabwe is not dependent on money.

You don’t need to have sanctions removed to stop the abuse of human rights, to stop interfering with the Judiciary, nor to make logical decisions around whether schools should open or not. The use of sanctions to hold government to account is more of a political issue than it is a real substantive issue.

ND: What are your expectations on the recommendations that will be adopted today and how do you think Zimbabwe should carry over from there?
MK: We are expecting that government will accept all the recommendations put by the member States. We are not expecting government to cherry-pick which recommendations to accept. Many of these recommendations are not new, they have been there for the last two reviews, and they keep coming. If we don’t accept and act on these recommendations, we remain painted dark in the global arena because of our human rights record. We can’t keep having the same issues coming up repeatedly. We can’t go into the UPR fourth cycle still having the same issues raised during the first cycle.

We are expecting the international community, the UN, the African Union, and Sadc to take a stronger stance on Zimbabwe to ensure that the government meets its responsibilities. If there are human rights problems in Zimbabwe, the region suffers. But if we have respect for human rights across the board, we can limit the kind of issues we would face as a region. We are hoping that these recommendations will be taken seriously by the government of Zimbabwe. As a civil society, we will not stop on our constitutional duty of putting government to account.

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