More needs to be done on human rights

LAST weekend 10 countries joined the European Union in a historic

event that pushed the size of the economic bloc to 25 states.

For almost half a decade these nations were going through a pro-bation period to satisfy minimum qualification standards set by the European Commission.

EU Commissioner for External Relations, Chris Patten, explained that the newcomers had to restructure almost every facet of their political, judicial and economic systems before being accepted in the group.

Africa opted three years ago to form a union on the European model. The African Union is battling to set up structures which mirror the European Union — the African parliament, the African Court, a peacekeeping force and so on.

The continent’s leaders have also appended their signatures to various conventions and declarations espousing African standards of governance and protection of human rights. But unlike the European Union where countries are under strict obligation to adhere to conventions and agreements, African countries have failed to abide by their own standards and declarations. Zimbabwe is a case in point.

African governments signed the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights in October 1986 and in October 2002 they adopted the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa.

To safeguard these rights the leaders agreed to establish an Africa Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. Running parallel to this is the New Partnership for Africa’s Development’s peer review initiative.

Without teeth and powers of sanction, the commission can only make recommendations and hope for the best, hence basic human rights have been violated with impunity.

As Zimbabwe commemorated World Press Freedom Day on Monday the country’s laws have continued to shift away from the minimum standards set in both the charter and the declaration.

For example, the declaration says there should be no arbitrary interference with people’s rights to freedom of expression. It says public broadcasters should have editorial independence.

“The public service ambit of broadcasters should be clearly defined and include an obligation to ensure that the public receive adequate, politically-balanced information, particularly during election periods,” the declarations says.

It also says bodies set up to regulate the media should be protected from political interference.

“Its powers shall be administrative in nature and it shall not seek to usurp the role of the courts. Effective self-regulation is the best system of promoting high standards in the media.”

That cannot be said of our Media and Information Commission.

The declaration says states should review all criminal restrictions on media content to “ensure that they serve a legitimate interest in a democratic society”.

“Freedom of expression should not be restricted on public order or national security grounds unless there is a real risk to harm a legitimate interest and there is a close causal link between the risk of harm and the expression,” the declaration says.

There are also calls to relax defamation laws so that “public figures shall be required to tolerate a greater degree of criticism”.

Zimbabwe’s media laws have remained largely in conflict with these standards on media freedom.

The country’s legislature has passed laws such as the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, the Broadcasting Services Act and the Public Order and Security Act without taking into cognisance the existence of important continental instruments. In fact there has been no attempt by government to publicise the instruments it has ratified — especially where these would hinder its repressive designs.

The judiciary has also upheld the constitutionality of laws which are at odds with African instruments.

The excuse that these are Western values does not apply here.

The tired argument is that African human rights and standards should have an African context so that they are not merely an expression of norms divorced from bread and butter issues.

Fundamental and universal human rights such as freedom from torture and slavery, or freedom of assembly and freedom of expression fall in the class of inalienable rights in any civilised society. There is no excuse for derogation.

Despite the documents being truly African, authored by Africans, not much effort has been put to adhere to them. African rulers, including our own, have been quick to identify the issue of basic human rights with Western liberal ideas. This official mantra, coupled with accusations that Western countries also have a notorious human rights record, have been used to deflect international criticism of serious human rights abuses in the country where dissent of any form is classified as terrorism.

Thus while the world celebrated World Press Freedom Day on Monday, Zimbabwe had the distinction of being one of the countries most hostile to journalists.

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