5 May 2005

African Rights May Not Equal Human Rights


ARTICLE 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 deals with the reedom of the press. It enshrines the right of citizens of the world to "seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media".

An international non-governmental organisation called Article 19 deals specifically with this aspect of a United Nations declaration which could be described - albeit by the naive among us - as the cornerstone of freedom of expression throughout the world.

Article 19 condemned the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act when it was passed in 2002. The law was passed by a Parliament some critics likened to the one-party assemblies notorious during the era of Communism for claiming to be staunchly democratic, even while they passed laws criminalizing all criticism of the government.

In 2002, our Parliament had an opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, which had won 57 seats in the 2000 elections. Its MPs voted against AIPPA en masse. But the Bill became law and a year later it closed down The Daily News and The Daily News on Sunday. Two more newspapers would suffer the same fate under AIPPA.

In 2001, the small second-hand printing press of Associated Newspapers of Zimbabwe Limited, the publishers of what became the largest-selling daily in the country, was blown to bit by limpet mines. Although there have been attempts recently not to automatically link this Act with Jonathan Moyo, then the Minister of State for Publicity and Information in the President's office, only a few dewy-eyed, wet-behind-the-ears journalists can speak of AIPPA without affixing on it the image of this once rabidly-pro-government politician.

The UN has made many high-sounding declarations, but its rate of success in implementing them is patchy. The wide-ranging UN reforms proposed by Secretary-General Kofi Annan himself, would seem to suggest - again to the naive among us - that the UN, in its 60th year has performed rather lamentably on many fronts.

Annan himself has been critical of the Human Rights Commission, the custodian and guardian of the Declaration of Human Rights. Annan has said he wants to reduce its membership and redefine its mandate. He did not publicly name Zimbabwe as one of the huge blotches on the credibility of the commission. But he didn't need to. Most members knew why the commission had a lousy record.

As far as the freedom of the media is concerned, Zimbabwe's record has been described as the worst in southern Africa.

Annan himself has said this of the media: "Journalists work on the frontlines of history, unravelling the tangle of events, giving them shape and giving us a narrative of our lives. Their tools are words and and images, their credo is free expression and their efforts empower all of us, individuals and societies alike."

Place that next to Moyo's description of Zimbabwean journalists as "terrorists", then you have a proper appreciation of why people like Annan find it outrageous that Zimbabwe should be a member of the commission.

It is expected that when the UN accepts Annan's reform proposals of the Human Rights Commission, delinquent nations such as Zimbabwe will not pollute the pure atmosphere of that august body.

It was inevitable that when Zimbabwe was re-elected to the commission last month, there would be unashamed gloating in the government media. The suspicion among many critics is that, by now, the government has mastered the art of turning notoriety into a cause for celebration.

If Italy had barred President Robert Mugabe from attending the funeral of Pope Paul ll in the Vatican it would have received all-round praise for showing political courage. As a member of the European Union, it could argue that it was abiding by the ban on Mugabe imposed on him and his entire ruling clique by the EU. But when prime minister Silvio Belusconi decided this would not accord the Catholic pontiff the proper decorum, the government in Zimbabwe almost soiled its pants with glee.

The government is learning to reap celebration from opprobrium. The notorious land reform carnage has been turned into a cause celebre for which Mugabe is claiming the mantle of an anti-imperialist African hero, rivalling the likes of Marcus Garvey, W.B. Dubois and Kwame Nkrumah before he messed up his image with some weird political gymnastics.

The government maintains that its notoriety as a prime abuser of the people's human rights is not based on truth, but is manufactured by its enemies, led by Tony Blair and George W. Bush. But an opposition party, operating in an atmosphere bristling with the terror of security agencies notorious for shooting first and asking questions later, still managed to shut out the ruling party in some areas during the 31 March parliamentary elections.

The MDC almost managed to repeat this feat in all the other major cities: Gweru, Mutare and Bulawayo. So, a substantial number of educated, sophisticated and assertive Zimbabweans reject Zanu PF's proposition that, were it not for Blair and Bush, its human rights record would be squeaky clean.

Yet there are many African countries which believe firmly that Mugabe is on the right track and that his "glorious" defiance of the West is good for the African psyche. Strangely, most of them are not as publicly defiant as Zimbabwe is and they continue merrily with normal economic and even political relations with what some Mugabeites have called the Terrible Twins.

None of their leaders are on any list barring them from entering the United States and Europe. None of their leaders run the risk of having their assets in the two regions confiscated. For ordinary Zimbabweans the price of this discord has been very high. The currency continues to lose its value, making life difficult for anybody with enough money to buy food.

Fuel is in almost perennially in short supply. Almost every sector is under siege and standards of everything have declined. It's as if the universal definition of human rights does not conform with what pass for African human rights.

The continent, the poorest on Earth, has let that poverty permeate even its concept of human rights.

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