24 May 2012

Zimbabwe: Pillay's Human Rights Findings - Curse or Blessing?

Photo: ONU/Jean-Marc Ferré
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Navanethem Pillay (file photo).

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SO the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navanethem Pillay, has arrived in Zimbabwe for her five-day visit. As she combs the human rights landscape, there are a few issues that she needs to be aware of and take note of, if her trip is to be worthwhile. So many high level diplomats have come to Zimbabwe in the hope of exploring the political landscape and other issues related to it, but have not managed to achieve much.

Anyway, Pillay will need a very balanced and emphatic approach if she is to get mileage from her five days in Zimbabwe. There are three critical fa-ctors that Pillay will need to consider.

Primarily, she needs to realise she has stepped into a very highly polarised political space.

She also needs to note the high pungency for manipulation and deception that is characteristic of Zimbabwean politics.

Lastly she must also realise that the political space is fast shifting in Zimbabwe; away from the official channels into unofficial and community/grassroots-based enclaves.

The "push and pull" tugging betw-een the Zimbabwean political parties and civil society is one of the fundamental issues that will characterise Pillay's visit. The political parties and civil society are going to contest for both space and voice in trying to "win" Pillay to any of their sides.

Already there are talks of civil society's allegation of some parties in government having hijacked Pillay's supposed interaction with civil society. While civil society claims they need to handle their own agenda and logistics, government has on the other hand indicated that Pillay was invited by them and therefore has a say in where she goes, how she goes there and who she meets. In fact, the broader question will be: who is civil society and how is civil society legitimised?

The confusion will come when we realise that there are three broad perspectives of civil society: the groupings that are supportive of ZANU-PF; the groupings that are supportive of the Movement for Democratic Change parties; and the groups that are somehow independent of the two poles. This polarisation of civil society is going to raise challenges for Pillay in terms of being able to verify authentic, non-partisan; and genuine civil society input.

The contestation among these broad groupings of civil society will always lead to ultra-competitive methods to try and catch the attention of Pillay. This will lead to extreme representations which focus away from reality but on the quest to attain as much contrast with the opposing groups as possible.

I remember in 2008 when some civil society organisations were busy depicting the picture that there was no political violence at all - or at least tried to blame it on the victims.

There was yet another group that also acknowledged the existence of political violence but were extreme in claiming atrocities beyond what actually transpired.

I have spent a lot of time trying to verify the notion or myth of the "long sleeve" and "short sleeve" hand-machete-ing that some civil society groups claimed took place in Mashonaland central in 2008.

Pillay needs to avoid the temptation of the "blind eye" and "deaf ear" and therefore play victim to the extreme posturing that various civil society groups may take in order to catch her utmost attention.

This is a highly polarised political environment I am sure she will have the wisdom of manoeuvring through it.

Pillay will also need to realise just how much expertise politicians in Zimbabwe have developed for decept-ive tactics and in engineering facades that are veneered in near-truths.

Pillay must balance her visit between diplomatic engagement and investigative exploits.

Whereas diplomatic engageme-nts -- which I am sure government officials will try to inundate her with - present the strategic but at times superficial issues; investigate exploits allow for actual observation and contact with the reality on the ground.

Pillay's visit will therefore be contrasted with the visit by the then United Nations special envoy, Anna Tibaijuka in 2005. When she enq-uired on "operation Murambatsvina" she had a good balance of both diplomatic engagements and investigative exploits.

As she engaged the diplomats by day, she carried her own investigations by night -- visiting some of the topical places and speaking to the affected and the people on the ground. She got accounts from first hand witnesses -- this enriched her report.

She was therefore not over-influenced by diplomatic sway and neither did she fall for some extreme anti-government ploy by some civil society organisations. She was balanced and objective -- thus her findings were credible.

Pillay must therefore not spend time in high-rise offices and siren-wielding motorcades or coffee and tea-sipping meetings -- she must get her hands dirty and get on the ground.

Pillay must also realise that issues of human rights abuse and defence are no longer located merely with politicians and civil society organisations. Zimbabwean communities have become dejected by the falsification of representation by politicians and by many civil society organisations. Communities are taking matters in their own hands.

In Matabeleland North, communities have begun to organise themselves to bring to account those that committed atrocities of political violence in the past. In Gokwe we know of the story of Tawengwa Chokuda who refused to bury his son until those responsible for his death had come out to appease him.

His stance became an individual and community-supported pursu-ance for justice.

We also remember the issue of the Shamva police details who killed a villager -- it was not until the community stood their ground that the law was then applied. Such are the developments and shifts in the trajectory of justice in Zimbabwe.

The space has shifted from the politicians and civil society to being with the communities.

Pillay must realise that as much as all these civil society organisations purport to represent the majority of Zimbabwean society -- there is some underlying issues of the illegitimacy of their representation.

Only until she is able to get it directly from the communities and the grassroots -- she is sourcing from the wrong foundation.

As we welcome Pillay to Zim-babwe, we also await her findings which she will present to us (tomorrow) on Africa day. If she is able to: avoid the political extremities; avoid over-diplomacy; carryout an interrogative and investigative process; connect with the grassroots and their issues; and overcome the temptation of political manipulation then her findings will be a good present to ordinary Zimbabwean for 2012 Africa day celebrations.

Will her findings be a curse or blessing for the hard-pressed people of Zimbabwe?

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