Zimbabwe: Zim Struggles to Turn Human Rights Corner

WHENEVER its democratic and human rights record has been criticised, President Robert Mugabe's Zanu PF often retorts; it cannot be condemned for its abuses because it actually brought respect of human rights and democracy in the first place at Independence in 1980.

Zanu PF officials say Mugabe's regime has done well in other areas, including education, health and land redistribution, apart from purportedly empowering Zimbabweans.

"Zimbabwe's literacy levels are at 92% and I am a beneficiary of his (President Robert Mugabe's) empowerment initiatives for the girl-child," said Vice-President Joice Mujuru last week at the launch of the Food and Nutrition Policy for Zimbabwe in Harare.

Mujuru then read out a long list of purported achievements under Mugabe's reign in education, health and housing among other things, which she said were evidence of Zanu PF's commitment to development and respect for human rights.

However, the reality is that there has been widespread systematic human rights violations in Zimbabwe under Mugabe as they were during the colonial period.

According to empirical evidence, analysts and human rights organisations like ZimRights and a host of other local rights groups, as well as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, Zimbabwe is one of those countries where rights to food, shelter, movement, assembly, association and expression - including media freedom - are still being violated on a disturbing scale.

Assaults on human rights defenders, civic groups, opposition parties and the media are still prevalent.

As a result Amnesty International says Zimbabwe's new constitution presents a golden opportunity for the country to "break away from a culture of impunity for human rights violations".

Mugabe signed into law a new constitution on Wednesday, following a three-year constitution-making process to replace the Lancaster House constitution adopted at independence in 1980.

"The new constitution is a positive development with the potential to increase ordinary people's enjoyment of their basic rights," said Noel Kututwa, Amnesty International's Africa deputy director.

"Not only is the world watching whether the country has truly turned the corner on this historic day, but millions of people in Zimbabwe hope that this new constitution will usher in a new political order where human rights are respected and protected."

There has been an increase in human rights violations in Zimbabwe since the political crisis that started in 2000 and led to millions fleeing the country to escape political persecution and economic hardship.

In 2008, more than 200 people were killed in state-sponsored violence during the second round of the presidential elections, while thousands were tortured, maimed and displaced.

"The next elections in Zimbabwe present a real test for the authorities to prove their commitment to the declaration of rights in the new constitution," said Kututwa.

"The real test is whether all political parties and civil society organisations will enjoy their rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly."

Government has generally responded to accusations of human rights violations through denials or accusing its critics as Western fronts. Zimbabwe is a signatory to various international conventions concerning human rights, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, and has included a Bill of rights in the new constitution. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which recognises that "the inherent dignity of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world", includes civil and political rights as well as economic, social and cultural rights.

During the coalition tenure, government formed the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission (ZHRC) under pressure to ensure and maintain respect for human rights.

However, serious under-funding and constant bickering among the coalition government partners have crippled the implementation of the ZHRC as Zimbabwe continues to stutter along what University of Western Cape Professor Brian Raftopoulos calls "the hard road to reform".

As analysts say, although the question of human rights is very complex, there are basic or minimum standards expected in reasonably free and democratic societies.

According to Zimbabwe Environmental Lawyers Association (Zela) legal officer, Veronica Zano, human rights have three broad categories, namely civil and political rights - first generation rights - economic and social rights (second generation) and environmental, cultural and developmental rights (third generation).

However, these rights are increasingly converging and becoming interlinked.

"There is a movement away from these rigid classifications to embracing all rights as being the same," said Zano. "You cannot talk of enjoying rights of association and expression when you lack access to shelter, education and health."

Analysts say Zanu PF has only been willing to implement second and third generation rights as they do not directly affect politics. Although it has failed on second and third generation rights, it was not for lack of trying. But its record of first generation rights is appalling, they say.

Bulawayo-based analyst Godwin Phiri said Zanu PF does not respect and uphold human rights due to lack of political will and repression. He said atrocities like Gukurahundi and Operation Murambatsvina show the party's blatant disregard for human rights.

Raftopoulos said authoritarianism, lack of political will and a culture of impunity have resulted in Zimbabwe's failure to protect human rights.

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