Two years after the swearing in of commissioners, the body is still not operational as political parties in the coalition government haggle over its mandate and scope of work.
The commission was established by Section 100R of the Constitution after Amendment number 19 in 2009.
Over three years after Amendment 19, which was brought by the signing of the Global Political Agreement (GPA), human rights violators remain scot-free with very few, if any, of them being investigated or prosecuted as Parliament has not yet passed an enabling act to allow ZHRC to do its work.
As the country prepares to hold elections later this year or in 2013, human rights activists believe giving teeth to the commission would be helpful in stemming violence which has become synonymous with polls in Zimbabwe’s highly polarised political environment.
Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition acting director Dewa Mavhinga said Zimbabwe, particularly Zanu PF, has never been serious about ensuring the respect, promotion and protection of human rights, hence operationalising ZHRC has been put on ice for two years now.
He said the ZHRC has a narrow mandate of examining human rights cases only from February 2009 when the most flagrant human rights violations were committed much earlier during the Gukurahundi period in the 1980s and successive elections, particularly the June 2008 presidential run-off election and during the 2005 operation Murambatsvina.
“We want to see a fully functional ZHRC whose independence is constitutionally enshrined, and with full investigative powers to examine any human rights matter brought before it,” said Mavhinga.
He said the commission must be accountable to Parliament, with its own resources, and not to the Minister of Justice who is a political appointee.
National Association of Non-Governmental Organisations (Nango) Chief Executive Officer, Cephas Zinhumwe said the ZHRC was an important organ which lacks support from government.
He said the commission was there in name only as it does not have a secretariat and budget in addition to the absence of the requisite enabling act.
“The government is mentally killing the commissioners because they came in with a lot of zeal and enthusiasm to do their work, but they are now gloomy with absolutely nothing to do,” said Zinhumwe.
He said Justice minister Patrick Chinamasa was currently in Geneva, Switzerland attending the United Nations Human Rights Council where he was speaking glowingly about the ZHRC.
“It is surprising Chinamasa is giving too much credit to Zimbabwe for establishing a commission which is dysfunctional,” said Zinhumwe. “The commissioners do not know their powers and if we go for elections like this, then human rights violations will again go unchecked.”
The mandate of the human rights commission and the members
The functions of the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commision include the promotion of human rights awareness and development, monitoring and assessing human rights observance and investigating alleged violations of human rights.
ZHRC members include Professor Austin, Dr Ellen Sithole, Dr Joseph Kurebwa, Jacob Mudenda, Japhet-Ndabeni Ncube, Sheila Matindike, Elasto Mugwadi, Ona Jirira and Norma Niseni.
Parties can’t agree on how much dirt to expose—Gutu
Deputy Minister of Justice, Senator Obert Gutu attributed the delay in the enactment of the ZHRC bill to the wrangles between Zanu PF and the MDC-T over how far back the body should investigate human rights abuses.
He said while MDC-T wants the commission to investigate abuses committed since Independence in 1980, Zanu PF was adamant that it should only deal with cases which happened after the formation of the inclusive government in 2009.
“I will not be surprised if Zanu PF plays a delaying tactic and stops Minister Chinamasa from presenting the bill in Parliament as scheduled. The party has indicated that it does not want the issue to be debated because it is a GPA issue,” said Gutu.
ZHRC Chairperson Professor Reginald Austin could not be reached for comment.
According to the Constitution, the ZHRC also assists the Minister of Justice to prepare reports on Zimbabwe’s compliance with international human rights agreements to which Zimbabwe is a party. A ZHRC member told The Standard last week that until the necessary legislation has been put in place, the body would remain as good as dead as its legal status, conditions of service of commissioners and the issue of the secretariat were sticking points which need to be ironed out.
He however said commissioners were currently holding informal meetings with relevant stakeholders who include civil society organisations, the media and government. They were also preparing for the eventual “resurrection” of the body by studying how other countries were running their own commissions.
Zimbabwe Human Rights Association (ZimRights) executive director Okay Machisa said the issue of the dysfunctional commission proves that government was not interested in coming up with a holistic and sincere approach to implementing reforms as spelt out in the GPA.
He said the GPA came about after a disputed poll in 2008 which was marred by violence, intimidation and other gross human rights violations.
“For the country to go for another election in the absence of a human rights commission is worrying,” said Machisa.
“This is a deliberate ploy by certain people in the inclusive government who want to maintain the status quo and continue to violate the rights of citizens with impunity.”