Zimbabwe: Critics Doubt Govt Sincerity in Rights Body Plan

ANALYSTS have warned that government's establishment of a human rights commission could become the state's latest move to evade the African Commission's recommendations and conceal its rampant human rights violations including failure to prosecute perpetrators.

Human rights organisations, though not dismissing government's proposal completely, expressed scepticism over the commission saying such institutions have often been manipulated into becoming part of government's machinery of repression. They said establishing the commission would not improve the situation but delay the hearing of human rights complaints in the international arena.

Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Zimbabwe national director Alouis Chaumba said government wants to portray an image of compliance with international standards but without sincerity.

"There is no sincerity in establishing the commission since government is the chief violator of human rights," Chaumba said. "We don't want to end up having another Zimbabwe Electoral Commission or Media and Information Commission (MIC) established in accordance with international standards but turned into democracy monsters."

Chaumba questioned the criteria that were going to be used to appoint the commission, to whom it would report and whether other stakeholders would be involved.

"For as long as we have the patronage system of appointments in place, the commission will be a tool readily available for government cover-ups," he said.

MIC has been used to administer government's draconian laws like the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act and the Broadcasting Services Act, which have led to the closure of a number of newspapers. The ZEC is still to prove its independence from government.

Chaumba advocated an overall constitutional reform instead of a "partisan amendment (No 18)".

Human Rights Trust of Southern Africa (Sahrit) executive director Noel Kututwa said his organisation noted with great satisfaction the announcement of government's intention to set up a national human rights commission but was quick to add that the commission can only be effective if it is independent, is granted quasi-judicial powers and if it draws members from a broad base.

"Sahrit notes that it has in previous cooperation with government institutions shared its concern with these government institutions over the absence of a Zimbabwean Human Rights Commission and therefore we applaud government in instituting the commission," Kututwa said. He said government must ensure that the proposed human rights commission is effective and established in accordance with the principles relating to the Status and Functioning of National Institutions for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights, popularly known as the Paris Principles.

"Sahrit enjoins government to ensure the following principles: independence and impartiality; sufficiently clear and broad constitutional and legislative basis for full functionality; diversity of membership of the commission; credible procedures for the appointment and removal of members; an independent budget that meets the needs of the commission; and a wide mandate to deal with all human rights issues in Zimbabwe," he said.

The National Constitutional Assembly described the proposed commission as yet another reflection of government's piece-meal, tokenist and undemocratic approach to Zimbabwe's urgent and dire need for a people-driven constitutional reform.

"Although a human rights commission is urgently required in Zimbabwe, to introduce it in the form of an 18th patch on Zimbabwe's tattered, torn, and shabby constitution, is in itself a mockery of the noble concept of human rights protection," NCA spokesperson Jessie Majome said in a statement. She said to establish a commission under the current constitution would be a futile exercise.

"What use will the commission be when the declaration of rights in the same constitution is so narrow and shallow as to give rights with the left hand and claw them back with the right hand - hence the flourishing of fascist laws such as the notorious Posa and Aippa?" Majome said.

She questioned how effective the commission could be when the provisions of the same constitution subordinate human rights to executive powers. Majome said the commission would not improve the situation but delay presentation of human rights complaints to international fora.

Government promulgation of the human rights commission comes as the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights (ACHPR) prepares to hear four cases submitted by Zimbabwean civil organisations against the government over the continued decline in the rule of law, ousting of the jurisdiction of the courts, violation of collective and individual rights and the suppression of fundamental rights and liberties.

During the 38th Ordinary Session in Banjul, Gambia last December, ACHPR resolved to urge government to implement the recommendations of the commission's fact-finding mission of June 2002, as well as the recommendations contained in the report by the United Nations Special Envoy on Human Settlement Issues of July 2005, and to repeal or amend Constitutional Amendment No 17 and provide an environment conducive to constitutional reform on the basis of fundamental human rights.

The commission declared admissible the cases of the Associated Newspapers of Zimbabwe challenging the Supreme Court's application of the "dirty hands" doctrine in constitutional and human rights-related matters and its impact of the right to protection of the law under the African Charter. It will hear arguments on electoral petitions, highlighting the inordinate delays in resolving election-related disputes from the 2000 parliamentary election and its implication for the independence of the judiciary and protection of the law.

Also before the commission is a case on the alleged infringement of free practice of journalism and the deportation of independent journalists in defiance of court orders as inimical to the free practice of the profession of journalism as well as denial of protection of the law. It will also hear challenges to Aippa in respect of free practice of journalism and compulsory registration of media houses by the government.

The African Commission ruled on four separate occasions that communications submitted by ZLHR were admissible implying that in those four cases there were no effective domestic remedies for the rights violations alleged.

Analysts say such decisions are an indictment of the judiciary as well as an unequivocal and significant indicator that the judiciary and the justice delivery system in Zimbabwe no longer guarantee the enjoyment of universally recognised human rights and fundamental freedoms.

This also further demonstrates the absence of the protection of the law for victims of human rights violations and gives credence to the allegations that there exists a practice of state-sponsored impunity in Zimbabwe.

The commission expressed concern over the continued decline in the rule of law characterised by defiance of court orders, ousting of the jurisdiction of the courts through constitutional amendments - in particular Amendment No 17, the violation of collective and individual rights through forced evictions, and the suppression of fundamental rights and liberties through laws such as Aippa, Posa and the Broadcasting Services Act.

These recommendations have not been implemented. The Law and Order unit of the CID which the commission recommended should be disbanded remains under political instructions with some opposition MPs and activists alleging that they have been tortured and suffered degrading punishments by this unit.

Analysts said the situation in respect of the judiciary seems to be deteriorating.

"Since January 2005, the superior courts have reinforced the perception that they lack independence and impartiality and are unable to deliver justice," an analyst said, adding that: "Where judicial officers have attempted to give effect to the rights of victims, court orders have been ignored or intentionally disregarded.

"In the most serious affront to the principle of separation of powers and the rule of law, the state has gone on to oust completely the jurisdiction of the courts to deal with certain categories of cases."

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