Zimbabwe must ensure that fundamental rights such as freedom of expression and association are respected in the run up to its constitutional referendum, United Nations experts said today, following reports of civil society organizations being subjected to searches, harassment and intimidation by the police.
"In the context of proposed constitutional reforms and the elections, it is disturbing and shocking to learn that civil society organizations that have been operating for years, including election monitoring groups which aim to promote free and fair elections, have been searched by police," said the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Maina Kiai.
"Search procedures must not be applied selectively, and the right to privacy needs to be respected. Otherwise, the independence of associations and the safety of their members will be seriously at risk."
For several months, a number of civil society organizations have been subjected to searches by police. During these searches, several items, including files with donor information, annual reports and human rights documents, have been seized.
In addition, many civil society organizations, particularly those working on human rights issues, have reported being subjected to physical violence and arbitrary arrests.
"With the referendum less than two weeks away, human rights defenders who promote participation have a critical role to play," said the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Margaret Sekaggya. "They must be protected by the Government and attempts to stifle criticism must end."
The experts also voiced their concern at the police's use of force against, and arrests of, peaceful protesters taking part, and handing out roses and teddy bears, in an annual Valentine's Day protest outside Parliament in Harare on 14 February.
"The ongoing practice of arrests against the activists could seriously hamper the right to freedom of expression," said the Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Frank La Rue.
"The Zimbabwean authorities must ensure that such measures are applied in accordance with international standards and everyone is guaranteed the right to speak freely without fear of persecution, arrest and intimidation."
Since the official announcement of the date for the referendum - 16 March - there has been an increase in attacks against civil society actors, and the three Rapporteurs expressed serious alarm at this development.
"We urge the authorities to take all relevant measures to ensure everyone's voice is heard, in view of the recurrence of acts of intimidation and harassment against those exercising their rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, which are essential components of democracy," they said, adding that they stand ready to provide assistance to contribute to the protection of fundamental freedoms in Zimbabwe.
Independent experts, or special rapporteurs, are appointed by the Human Rights Council to examine and report back on a country situation or a specific human rights theme. The positions are honorary and the experts are not UN staff, nor are they paid for their work.