16 January 2013

Zimbabwe: Austin's Resignation Spotlights Zim's Human Rights Record

THE fear of politically-motivated violence flaring up again in the next election has stoked up concerns yet again over the country's human rights record.

Human rights organisations have been sounding alarm bells over what they called a looming bloodbath and a repeat of the violence witnessed in the June 2008 election run-off following failure by the inclusive government to end polarisation in the country's body politic.

The resignation of Reginald Austin, the chairperson of the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission (ZHRC) earlier this month has also cast the spotlight on the country's controversial human rights record while bringing into question its readiness to deal with any transgressions that might occur ahead of the do-or-die elections.

The ZHRC was established as part of the political reforms to be undertaken by the coalition government during its sustenance.

The Commission has had a tumultuous start.

The Act informing its existence has proscribed it from investigating human rights violations committed before February 2009, when the unity government was consummated.

Violence flared up in the run-up to the presidential poll run-off won by President Robert Mugabe after Movement for Democratic Change (MDC-T) leader, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai pulled out citing the death of more than 200 of his supporters. These and many other despicable acts committed during this period fall outside the mandate of the ZHRC.

What it means is that the ZHRC is also precluded from investigating other human rights violations including those perpetrated during Operation Murambatsvina in 2005 and Gukurahundi, which ended with the signing of the Unity Accord in 1987.

Austin's criticism of the ZHRC as he tendered his resignation bordered on "the lack of a budget, no accommodation, no mobility, no staff and no implementing Act or corporate legal status", all of which he said indicated the government's lack of commitment to tackling human rights issues.

"As a national human rights institution, the commission must be independent and properly capacitated to comply with the international standards set by the Paris Principles for its credibility and recognition to participate as a peer in the international human rights community", said Austin.

Austin's criticism has opened a Pandora's Box with Patrick Chinamasa, the Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Minister issuing a sharp rebuke to the ex-ZHRC boss. Chinamasa said Austin's claims were "invalid".

Analysts say the challenges faced by ZHRC were not new, but are characteristic of every commission formed under the watch of the four-year-old unity government. The Zimbabwe Election Commission, the Zimbabwe Anti-Corruption Commission and the Zimbabwe Media Commission are cited as examples.

All these commissions are not adequately resourced in terms of both manpower and funding. Politicians are also known to interfere with their operations.

In light of the high-stakes brought about by the looming elections, the resignation of Austin could spark fresh grounds for political bickering between ZANU-PF and the MDC formations in the race to replace him.

Obert Gutu, the Deputy Minister for Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs and one of the top MDC-T officials said politics and human rights were like Siamese twins hence there would be political considerations when it comes to Austin's replacement.

"But we trust that the principals in the unity government would be able to make a rational decision based on merit," he said.

Trevor Maisiri, an analyst from the International Crisis Group, said the appointment mechanism was not foolproof as it vests powers in the political parties as well as in the President's ultimate endorsement.

"So political party interests will carry the day...until and unless Zimbabwe goes through a full and undeterred political transition can such appointments be purely non-political", he said.

Maisiri, however, suggested that the process could be open to "compromise" if different camps emerged over the replacement.

"It's difficult to say who will gain or lose from the replacement, as the conduct of the incoming person would be guided more by provisions of the institution of the ZHRC rather than merely individual preference. Already the ZHRC bill is a compromise. . . Again there is a lot of compromise, which in one way is inevitable and yet on the other relapses on key fundamental democratic effectiveness", said Maisiri.

Tough questions are already being asked in political circles and in the corridors of power over the possible replacement of Austin, an internationally-renowned lawyer.

While it remains unclear who will take over from him, lobbyists have already swung into action.

Wilson Sandura, a former Supreme Court judge has been touted as a strong candidate to take-over the leadership of the ZHRC.

Sandura led a commission inquiry into the Willowgate scandal that fingered the corrupt activities of ZANU-PF government ministers in 1989.

WikiLeaks cables released in 2010 on Sandura described him "as widely respected for his non-partisan reading of the law and is viewed as one of the two last remaining independents".

Gutu could not rule out Sandura rising up to the top job at ZHRC.

"There are legal luminaries that are there, such as eminent Judge Sandura. He can take up the human rights commission. There is no shortage of manpower and sharp legal minds in Zimbabwe", said Gutu.

ZANU-PF insiders said the party is opposed to suggestions of Sandura being roped into the human rights commission although the party's national spokesperson, Rugare Gumbo, denied that the party was positioning an ally to take up the post.

"We are only preparing for the referendum and elections," he said.

One of the leading civic lobby groups in Zimbabwe wants someone from among the current ZHRC members to take up the post. This is being proposed as a strategy to prevent an all-out clash between ZANU-PF and the MDC formations.

"The deputy chairperson of the commission, Allan Sithole, who is a law lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe, is very capable," a source said.

"We are quite likely to have a new chairperson from the current pool of commissioners taking over . . . but the principals in the unity government are seized with the matter and an announcement will be made in due course," said the official, who requested anonymity.

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