2 January 2013

Zimbabwe: Govt Urged to 'Wake Up' After Resignation of Human Rights Chief

The resignation of the head of Zimbabwe's Human Rights Commission is being described as a serious 'wake up call' for the government, which is being urged to strengthen its human rights commitments.

Professor Reginald Austin stepped down as head of the Commission last month, citing 'inhibiting laws' and a lack of resources.

"The critical reason for my resignation is the legal framework ... within which the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission is expected now and in the future, to carry out its mandate," Austin was quoted as saying in a statement.

He added: "As a national human rights institution the commission must be independent and properly capacitated." Austin cited sections of the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission Act and electoral laws that he said impinged on the Commission's work.

The Commission was set up in 2009 after the formation of the unity government, as part of a number of reforms needed for free and fair elections. But years later, the Commission remains hobbled with no support from the government in terms of either resources or respect.

The Human Rights Commission Bill was only sworn in late last year, among a number of other bills that appeared to be rushed through parliament ahead of elections. The Bill actively prevents the Commission from dealing with any political violence before 2008. A clause in the Bill allows Human Rights Commissioners only to look at rights abuses after they were sworn into office on 13th February 2009.

Irene Petras, the head of the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) group, told SW Radio Africa that she is disappointed by the resignation, but not surprised.

"I can understand the reasons for the resignation because there are some serious problems in terms of the Commission doing the work that needs to be done. However, somebody who points out the challenges is to be commended, at least so we can address these issues," Petras said.

She explained that the move must be viewed as a wake-up call, "because we have been seeing a real lack of will by government to make sure these institution are properly resourced and can function independently."

"I just hope the government won't ignore these warnings again," Petras said, adding that the pressure must continue to grow on the government to strengthen its commitments to the protection of human rights.

In a statement the ZLHR also added that Austin's decision to step down is a threat to the protection of human rights.

"This resignation is an unequivocal statement of the condemnation of the current operating framework particularly the excessive powers of the executive," it said.

It added: "Lack of effective powers and independence of the commission to investigate and take strong action where human rights violations have been brought to its attention and its inability to independently investigate and take strong action in relation to electoral-related violations."

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