HomeOpinion & AnalysisRule of law, Human Rights Still Under Attack – McGee

Rule of law, Human Rights Still Under Attack – McGee

THESE are the farewell remarks by Ambassador James McGee on July 3 at a reception held on the occasion of the 233rd Anniversary of the Independence of the United States in Harare.

Ladies and Gentlemen, distinguished guests and friends; welcome to the celebration of the 233rd birthday of the United States of America.

I know there has been some controversy about whether or not I’m supposed to speak today – the Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a directive that toasts and speeches not be given on national days – but freedom of speech is one of the fundamental principles we are celebrating today… and I intend to exercise it. So I hope you won’t mind if I offer a few thoughts on where Zimbabwe has been over the past year and where I hope it can go after I leave.
Today we celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776.
This document, written over 200 years ago, still speaks eloquently to the challenges Zimbabwe faces today.  The Declaration states: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
“That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organising its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.”  
As I understand it, this is exactly what the fight in Zimbabwe has been about – the right of a people to democratically elect a government that they believe will best serve their interest in securing basic and universal freedoms.
When I look back at my time in Zimbabwe, and especially at events over the past year, it is remarkable how much has happened. Change really has come to Zimbabwe, although much remains to be done.
Exactly one year ago today, several hundred victims displaced by the post-election violence showed up at my embassy looking for assistance. As we gathered to celebrate the fourth of July last year, my staff was working to feed, care for and find housing for hundreds of victims of that violence.
All around Zimbabwean people were being beaten and killed for expressing their political opinions. At this same time of extreme need, NGOs were banned from providing food, medicine, and other humanitarian assistance to needy Zimbabweans across the country. At that time, inflation was being measured in the millions and even billions of percent.
During this past year, schools were largely closed, Zimbabwe’s health care system shut down, a cholera epidemic killed over 4 000 people, and dozens of innocent Zimbabweans were abducted and tortured.
Today, one year later, we have an inclusive government comprised of Zimbabwe’s three main parties. Hyperinflation has ended. The cholera epidemic has been brought under control. Schools and hospitals are largely open, though struggling. Many of the victims of last year’s violence are back in their homes and attempting to rebuild their lives.
 Zimbabwe is at least working on recovery. But at the same time so much remains to be done. The rule of law and human rights are still under attack in Zimbabwe. Innocent Zimbabweans continue to be arrested and prosecuted.
Recently, for example, a human rights lawyer representing several individuals who are subjects of political charges was himself arrested for allegedly making false statements while representing his clients.  A court clerk was arrested and incarcerated for carrying out an order of release that authorities said should not have been issued.
This does not happen where the rule of law prevails. Justice and healing from last year’s widespread violence remain elusive. We have a report that a victim of last year’s violence returned to his home after having sought sanctuary last year in South Africa. He had filed a civil suit against one of his attackers; when the victim got off the bus at his rural village the attacker assaulted him again – this time with an axe.   
Across Zimbabwe, villagers whose grain, farm tools, and livestock were stolen last year, remain without recourse as police continue to refuse to record their legal complaints.
The US has long been a friend of Zimbabwe and we will continue to provide humanitarian support. We will also support the Zimbabwan people’s efforts to restore democracy and economic prosperity. Last year the US gave over US$250 million in humanitarian aid to Zimbabwe. We have already given US$150 million in aid this fiscal year.
President Barack Obama recently announced an additional US$73 million in assistance aimed at strengthening good governance, addressing Zimbabwe’s HIV/Aids crisis, providing in-kind education assistance, and enhancing food production with seeds and fertiliser packs. I would like to stand here and say that we will give even more support to Zimbabwe, but we need to see progress on critical issues like restoring the rule of law, respecting human rights and guaranteeing freedom of speech, and freedom of assembly and association.
I reject the idea that Zimbabwe needs more donor support to do this. It costs nothing. It doesn’t cost anything to start enforcing property rights or to have judges apply the law equally.
Dropping phantom, politically motivated prosecutions is free. Stopping the arrests of political activists and independent journalists is also free. Licensing new private media and allowing international journalists to practise openly in Zimbabwe might even generate revenue. These are the kinds of steps we need to see to expand our commitment to Zimbabwe.
Another important issue the inclusive government needs to address – right away – is the new constitution. Donors have already said they will support this process, but it needs to be an inclusive process that wins the support of the people of Zimbabwe.
The US constitution begins “We the people…” for a reason; because the constitution creates a government of the people. It is not “We the major political parties” or  “We the chief negotiators” because it’s not their constitution. It is everyone’s. No constitution will succeed if it isn’t supported by the people. Nor are such steps all about satisfying donors.
Perhaps more importantly they are also what are required to bring back private investment. Zimbabwe is a wealthy country. Zimbabwe’s natural and human resources were once the envy of Africa – and they still could be. However, as Stephen Hayes, the CEO of the Corporate Council on Africa, said during a recent visit, no one will invest in Zimbabwe until they are confident in the legal environment. This isn’t the result of sanctions or an anti-Zimbabwe campaign. It is simply basic economics. Capital is a coward as the saying goes. Foreign investors, not to mention Zimbabwean businessmen, want to know that the rule of law will be respected and that their investments will be safe before they put money into Zimbabwe’s economy.
What this requires, above all, is positive political will. It requires political leaders who put the interest of the people of Zimbabwe ahead of their own. Most of all it requires that all Zimbabweans take responsibility for, and play a role in, the changes they want to see. As I said, the US has been, and will remain a friend of Zimbabwe. But now is the time for Zimbabweans to take their future into their own hands. A lot has happened in the past year and I think a real opportunity for change exists. I am convinced that almost all Zimbabweans – whether they are members of Zanu PF, MDC, other parties, or no party – want democratic change and basic liberties. However, it’s not about what I think, but what Zimbabweans think and want.
For real change to take hold in Zimbabwe, average Zimbabweans must do what the founders of the US did 233 years ago. They must stand up for their rights and demand a government of their choosing that serves their interests. If they do so, I promise that the US will support them in their quest.


Recent Posts

Stories you will enjoy

Recommended reading