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Links with civil society necessary

By Pedzisai Ruhanya


OPPOSITION MP Trudy Stevenson’s views on what she calls political incest among civil society organisations fail to appreciate the role of civil society organisations, opposition political parties and other pro-democracy forces in forcing a norm-v

iolating government to abide by the international regime of human rights and civilised state behaviour in a crisis situation such as Zimbabwe.

In her contribution, “Civil society threatened by political incest” (Zimbabwe Independent, August 18), I got the impression that Stevenson was not happy with the cordial relations between most civil society organisations with the main Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) faction led by Morgan Tsvangirai. This seems so because it took Stevenson five years to realise that opposition forces and civil society organisations in Zimbabwe have been working together in a bid to foster democratic compliance in Zimbabwe.

The issue of “incest” had not arisen up to now because she was part of the united MDC but the situation should be changed according to her because her faction does not have the support of critical civil society partners. If this is not double standards then the honourable MP should explain the source of her new-found disgust with this relationship she has been party to for a long time before the October 12 2005 fallout of the MDC.

Moreso, Stevenson did not tell the reading public that she was as of last year an active member of the Combined Harare Residents Association (CHRA) while she was doubling as the MP for Harare North. At some point last year CHRA used to hold its meetings at the offices of Transparency International Zimbabwe in Harare which Stevenson attended without fail. The problem has now arisen because according to her, the structures of CHRA have office-bearers from the main MDC led by Tsvangirai.

It is therefore clear that Stevenson is not so much worried about the so-called incest relationship but is disgusted by what appears to be a ubiquitous presence of the other faction at the expense of the one that she represents.

Instead of hiding under the cover of political incest, Stevenson should legitimately and openly show her displeasure without misleading the public into attempting to be an independent critic when its seems clear that she is not happy with the failure of her faction to be recognised by some critical civil society organisations and leaders.

However, for her benefit, there is nothing wrong with political organisations and civil society groups working together to force a dictatorship such as the one in Zimbabwe to stop abusing human rights and to follow the democratic route in its governance of national affairs. Zimbabwe is a member of various international treaties such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and should abide by those norms governing state behaviour towards its citizens.

It is a well-established norm in human rights discourse that domestic advocacy networks such as Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, the National Constitutional Assembly (NCA), CHRA, the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights and opposition political groups, in what is known as the “boomerang” pattern of influence, promote and protect human rights through internal and international linkages in order to bring pressure on the norm-violating regime to abide by its domestic and international obligations to respect human rights and other fundamental civil and political liberties which constitute the cornerstone of a democratic society.

In many troubled societies such as Zimbabwe and even during the Rhodesian era, such a situation arises as a result of failure by the human rights groups to effectively communicate with the authorities and then resort to seeking assistance from their international partners to assist in pressurising the norm-violating government to change its human rights behaviour.

As Stevenson pointed out in her article, this scenario is not new in Zimbabwe because, for instance, the Catholic Commission of Justice and Peace in Zimbabwe and other organisations played this role in the 1970s by mobilising domestic and international human rights networks to condemn the genocidal government of Ian Smith against the people of Zimbabwe in search of their independence.

What is important is to work together and address areas of differences than concentrating on which faction of the MDC has the support or not of civil society. If the majority of civil society organisations differ with one faction, it is incumbent upon the parties concerned to look at the source of the differences and clarify them than attempting to posture while the country is burning as a result of the political and economic policies of a bankrupt and corrupt Zanu PF administration.

National groups, non-governmental organisations and social movements should link up with transnational networks and international non-governmental organisations when they lobby and convince international human rights organisations, regional and African donor institutions and some powerful African countries such as South Africa and others to pressure the Zimbabwean authorities to stop human rights abuses and to promote good governance and democratic practices in the conduct of state affairs.

In order for these networks such as the NCA, Crisis Coalition, the NGO Human Rights Forum and the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions to be able to sustain their moral authority over human rights abuses in Zimbabwe and the observation of international norms, there is need for them to be impartial or independent. The networks should be seen as not self-interested. It is further suggested that the networks should not be seen as interested in acquiring political power or as too linked to those in political power.

For the record, neither of the two MDC feuding groups is in power and there is no reason why they should not unite with civil society partners to confront the Harare regime. In the event that either faction assumes power, then the views of Stevenson should hold. There would be a need to allow those who want to form the next government do so and those who remain in civil society do so and independently make the government accountable and destroy their linkages prior to the formation of the said government.

Human rights academics have further suggested that the combined efforts of advocacy networks and oppositional pro-democracy forces through their activities put norm-violating states on the international agenda in terms of moral consciousness awareness. They argue that in doing so, they remind liberal states especially in the West of the moral identity as the promoters of human rights.

This argument seems plausible to persuade norm-violating governments to change their behaviour because in the majority of cases, the Western liberal governments that believe in the promotion and protection of civil and political liberties are providers of bilateral and multilateral aid to some of the norm-violating governments such as Zimbabwe.

For economic survival especially the receipt of balance of payment support, some of those countries responsible for violating human rights can be restrained from doing so in order to preserve their economic relations with both Western governments and aid agencies.

Civil society and oppositional pro-democracy forces in Zimbabwe should not invest resources to fight each other but instead use methods that have been used by other transnational networks to promote human rights through such tactics as information politics, symbolic politics and leverage and accountability politics.

These methods were successfully used in the Eastern Europe in countries such as Poland and Czechoslovakia and in South American countries like Chile while at home Smith can testify to the effectiveness of these tactics. Across the Limpopo the former apartheid regime will confess how the United Democratic Front — working together with their partners in Zimbabwe, Zambia, Kenya and the international community — brought about democratic rule in South Africa.

* Pedzisai Ruhanya is a Zimbabwean journalist studying in the UK.

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