Zec must notify stakeholders on time

Letters to the editor

AS part of their commitment to supporting democratic development and promote credible, transparent and accountable electoral processes in Zimbabwe, the Election Resource Centre (ERC) and Zimbabwe Election Support Network (Zesn) are observing the voter registration blitz on an independent and non-partisan basis for all Zimbabweans.

The joint observation effort will provide citizens and key stakeholders with accurate, timely and credible information on the voter registration blitz.

In order to gather factual and verifiable information on the conduct of the 2022 voter registration blitz, ERC and Zesn deployed one volunteer per constituency who will observe periodically the entire voter registration process and provide weekly reports on the political environment.

These individuals were carefully recruited from local communities following a strict criterion and adhering to gender balance.

These observers underwent a thorough training programme on the voter registration process, direction on what to observe, and when to report during the voter registration period.

Additionally, during the training, observers signed a code of conduct acknowledging that they were non-partisan. Zesn and ERC will release periodic reports on the inclusivity, transparency and accountability of the voter registration blitz.

In late October 2021, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (Zec) announced that it planned to conduct a voter registration blitz beginning early December.

Zec later said the voter registration blitz would occur simultaneously across all 210 constituencies in two phases, with the first beginning on December 6, 2021 concluding on December 20, 2021 and the second phase starting on December 28, 2021 concluding on February 1, 2022.

Approximately two weeks prior to the scheduled start of the first phase, Zec postponed the entire voter registration blitz to early February 2022.

The reason it gave for the delay was to provide additional time for Zimbabweans to obtain national ID cards, a key requirement for one to register.

Zec did not provide the new dates of the voter registration blitz until January 13, 2022 and it was at this time when it announced that the voter registration blitz was to run from February 1-28, 2022 with the second phase running from April 11-30, 2022.

Lack of sufficient notice and uncertainty of the timeline creates confusion among individuals who wish to register or update their registration

This also makes it difficult for other stakeholders, including political parties, civil society and observers to adequately prepare to engage in the process. –Election Resource Centre

Worrying developments in COVID-19 containment in schools

WE note with concern the increase in COVID-19 infections in schools, particularly 13 cases from Masvingo province, two from Matabeleland North, and one from Manicaland.

We note that these worrying developments are taking place barely two weeks after schools reopened.

We continue to highlight the need to prioritise the safety of learners, teachers and support staff by minimising the risk of exposure to COVID-19.

We urge strengthening of COVID-19 surveillance in schools and tertiary institutions.

We also urge strict adherence to COVID-19 guidelines and protocols in educational institutions, which includes regular fumigation of school premises and buses which ferry pupils and staff.

We call upon government to improve the provision of water and sanitation infrastructure and services to schools across the country.

We call upon government to ensure effective provision of masks and other personal protective equipment to schools and the education sector as a whole. –Women’s Coalition of Zimbabwe

Shelve PVO Amendment Bill for now

WE, the undersigned civic society organisations (CSOs) express concern over the Private Voluntary Organisations (PVOs) Amendment Bill, which was gazetted on November 5, 2021.

The Bill seeks to amend the PVOs Act [Chapter 17:05].

We are concerned that in its current form, the Bill criminalises the work of civil society, restricts civic space and will ultimately have a negative impact on the lives of ordinary Zimbabweans who, due to the deteriorating political, social and economic situations in the country, have had to rely on the work of CSOs for inter-alia humanitarian aid and holding government accountable for human rights abuses, governance and accountability.

While one of the objectives of the Bill is to ensure the country complies with the Financial Action Taskforce (FATF) recommendations by inter-alia ensuring that non-profit organisations are not misused by terrorist organisations, an analysis of the Bill shows that, rather than complying with recommendations, this legislation is crafted with a view of clamping down on civic space and infringing on constitutionally-guaranteed rights such as the right to association, right to privacy and right to freedom of expression.

Specifically, as the coalition of the undersigned CSOs, we are of the view that the Bill is retrogressive and is in violation of international human rights standards which Zimbabwe is a signatory to, on the following parameters;

Some sections of the Bill are vague and open to different interpretations and abuse. For example, clause 2 which gives the minister vast powers to censor institutions deemed “to be at high risk of or vulnerable to misuse by terrorist organisations” is problematic.

The definition of “high risk PVO” is left to the discretion of the minister. The minister may use this to prescribe additional or special requirements, obligations, or measures, not consistent with this Act. This leaves CSOs vulnerable to sporadic and arbitrary requirements from the minister at any time, after being unceremoniously termed a high risk PVO.

The Bill also prohibits PVOs from “political involvement”, which is an overly broad and vague term that has the potential of being misused to target and persecute civil society leaders, pro-democracy activists and human rights defenders (including citizens seen participating in CSO gatherings).

Clause 7 of the Bill gives the minister extensive powers to unilaterally suspend or remove the executive committees of PVOs. The ministerial prerogative to appoint one or more persons of his/her choice as trustees to run the affairs of PVOs, is excessive interference in the administration of PVOs.

We view this provision as compromising the ability of organisations to choose their own leadership and independent function without any influence from the government. This provision is also subject to abuse by the minister.

The minister may appoint people who have no interest in advancing the work of PVOs, but just there to further the minister’s interest. This excessive involvement of the Executive could result in non-governmental organisations and CSO funds being expropriated by government under the guise of complying with provisions of the FATF.

There is a real risk that the expropriation of the funds can be done without following due process of the law and without compensation. Thus, possibly negatively impacting humanitarian and developmental aid to citizens.

The Bill entails that entities registered as trusts will also be required to register under the PVO Act, which will mean some designated organisations will become unlawful entities unless they register under the new law.

As the registrar of PVOs will be reporting to the Office of the President, the threat of deregistration could affect the ability of CSOs to speak out freely. Clause 6 obligates a PVO to reregister or amend its registration in circumstances such as change in ownership of the PVO, amendment of the Constitution or variation of the capacity of the PVO.

This is a form of micro-management as PVOs must report these internal operations such as institutional management changes to the government. This is unnecessary red tape which is intrusive and prone to abuse by the government to interfere with the internal management and governance matters of PVOs.

Clause 5 of the Bill is set to limit PVOs from supporting or opposing any political party or candidate in a presidential, parliamentary, or local government election by making it criminal to engage in political activity.

In one way or the other, CSOs in Zimbabwe are involved in promoting and protecting civil and political rights guaranteed under the Constitution and major international instruments which Zimbabwe has signed and ratified.

Government can use this provision to arrest members of CSOs and any citizens deemed to be speaking out against the ruling party, especially ahead of the 2023 general elections. This gives rise to authoritarianism and violates fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution such as freedom of assembly and association (section 58), freedom of conscience (section 60) and political rights (section 67).

Clause 5 closes civic space for all non-profit organisations, primarily those in the fields of governance, elections, political participation, human rights, media freedom and democracy.

We, therefore, make the following recommendations to the authorities and relevant stakeholders:

  • The PVO Amendment Bill must be shelved until it meets local, regional, and international standards on human rights and best practices for the exercise of freedom of expression, freedom of association and the right to privacy. To this end, citizens should reject the Bill.
  • The drafting of any amendment that has the potential of curtailing the rights of CSOs and citizens alike should come after a wide-ranging consultative process. This process should be consultative and reflective of the views of a wide spectrum of Zimbabwean society.
  • The PVO Amendment Bill must be subjected to a constitutional alignment exercise as it contravenes some material rights in an open, democratic, and transparent society. The human rights agenda underpinning the Constitution must filter and permeate through the PVO regulatory framework. As such, the foundational values, principles and rights and freedoms enshrined in the Constitution must be reflected in the regulatory framework for the CSO sector.
  • Key terms such as “high risk” and ‘political interference’ must be clearly defined, to avoid vagueness and ambiguity that result in abuse of CSOs.
  • Alternative ways of preventing money laundering and financial terrorism which do not infringe on civil society space should be considered.

Bulawayo Progressive Residents Association, Community Youth Development Trust, COTRAD, Gweru Residents and Ratepayers Association, Habakkuk Trust, SWRGN, UCHIRRA, ZWRCN, Institute for Young Women Development