US Ambassador to Zimbabwe, Bruce Wharton has called on governments to be tolerant of civil society organisations (CSOs) even if they may be critical of government policies.
REPORT BY NQABA MATSHAZI
Speaking at a Food for Thought discussion in Harare last week, Wharton said good relations between governments and CSOs were healthy and important.
“As independent entities with different abilities and missions, CSOs and governments offer both complementarity and a means of checks and balances,” he said.
Wharton’s comments come at a time when Zimbabwe has been accused of heavy-handedness in dealing with civil society leaders in the country.
Most recently, there has been a crackdown on the Zimbabwe Human Rights Association (Zimrights), with prosecutors alleging that the organisation’s chairman, Okay Machisa was plotting mayhem.
In a statement last week, the United Nations bemoaned what it termed an “increase in arbitrary arrests, intimidation and harassment of human rights activists and innocent citizens”.
“We condemn recent attacks against human rights defenders in Zimbabwe, including arbitrary arrests, intimidation and harassment,” the Office of the Commissioner on Human Rights (OCHR) said.
Wharton, giving an example of the US, said the government appreciated the role of CSOs, with the White House and State Department setting up offices for CSO outreach.
“This outreach does not infringe on the independence of CSOs, but seeks to identify areas in which we may work together,” he said.
The Food for Thought discussion was talking about the legacy of Martin Luther King, one of the most eminent CSO leaders in America.
Relations between the government and civil society have often been characterised by mistrust and suspicions.
In the past, a number of CSO leaders have been arrested on a variety of charges, but in most cases, the state is yet to win a conviction.
One of the most high profile arrests was that of Jestina Mukoko, who in 2008 was charged with attempting to recruit people for military training to try to overthrow the government.
Mukoko heads the Zimbabwe Peace Project (ZPP), a non-profit making organisation working on human rights monitoring.
Last year, Masvingo governor, Titus Maluleke banned 29 non-governmental organisations [NGOs] that were operating in the province for failure to register with his office, as further proof of the poor relations between authorities and CSOs.