Justice working group way to go for Zimbabwe

On September 24 2014, Zimbabwe witnessed the birth of the National Transitional Justice Working Group (NTJWG), a critical group in the current transitional justice processes.

Dzikamai Bere & Prosper Maguchu

Briefing stakeholders at the press conference, the chairperson of the NTJWG, Alec Muchadehama said the working group was established by 46 non-state Zimbabwean actors to provide the interface between transitional justice stakeholders and the official transitional justice processes in Zimbabwe.

Official transitional justice processes would refer to the operation of such bodies as the National Peace and Reconciliation Commission, the Human Rights Commission, the Gender Commission and related bodies aimed at providing redress for victims of human rights violations.

In a statement distributed at the press briefing, the working group outlines in great detail the background to its formation, the nature and structure, the operating context and the vision. Muchadehama concluded the briefing by outlining what the transitional justice stakeholders must expect from the working group.

It is very important that we look closely at this group and unpack its nature, mandate and space in Zimbabwe’s justice processes.

To begin with, we have to ask a question of relevancy. Do we need the National Transitional Justice Working Group? What space is this group occupying?

The concept of a working group is new in Zimbabwe but not new to the world. At the UN level, working groups consist of one or more thematic experts tasked to investigate, guide and advise the UN Human Rights Council in dealing with a specific theme or emerging problem. In Africa we can look at Liberia where civil society actors created the Transitional Justice Working Group (TJWG).
TJWG in Liberia describe themselves as a coalition of NGOs that seeks to stimulate and influence a broad discussion on transitional justice in Liberian society. They have worked closely on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Liberia, having been involved from the first discussions.

Another case is the transitional justice case of Uganda. Uganda experienced nearly two decades of civil strife, under Milton Obote I (1962–1971), Idi Amin (1971–1979) and Milton Obote II (1980-85).

During this period, it is estimated that over 300 000 people died. In trying to deal with this legacy, justice actors including government agreed on the formation of a Transitional Justice Working Group.

However, the government moved fast and marginalised civil society in the formation of the working group causing civil society to form their own parallel working group. Around October 2012, there were attempts to bring the two working groups together.
Unlike the case of Liberia, Zimbabwe’s NTJWG is not a coalition of NGOs.

Explaining the nature of the working group, Muchadehama said the NTJWG is a platform for transitional justice stakeholders to interface with official transitional justice processes.

Somewhere else in the carefully worded statement, Muchadehama said that while the members of the NTJWG are nominated by different organisations representing different stakeholders, the members serve the working group in their voluntary personal capacity to advance the needs of transitional justice stakeholders. This must be understood to mean that different stakeholders put their trust in the individual competencies of persons forwarded to the working group, hence together they do not form a coalition of NGOs, but simply a working group as the name says. This nature of the working group sounds complex but we can decode it if we look at the nature of independent commissions.

While various stakeholders may participate in the nomination process, the commission is not a coalition of those groups but simply a committee of individuals believed to have the capacity to dispense the mandate.

Having settled that, the question we now ask is, is it relevant to have such a working group in Zimbabwe at this time?

We do not have a culture of working groups in Zimbabwe so we have to depend on what the NTJWG has put in the public domain about the its strategic foundation and vision.

In addressing the issue of operating context, Muchadehama noted that the NTJWG is coming into existence when Zimbabwe has just started operationalising the new constitution, which in Chapter 12 establishes the National Peace and Reconciliation Commission (NPRC) among many other commissions and institutions that support a culture of human rights and democracy.

He then goes on to say this creates an opportunity for transitional justice stakeholders to contribute to any national process aimed at achieving post-conflict justice, healing and reconciliation.

Zimbabwe’s attempts at dealing with a legacy of serious human rights violations have taken too long and hopes of a just resolution seemed to have been fading away until the advent of the new constitution with some promising mechanisms. The NPRC is one such mechanism, which promises a comprehensive way of pursuing justice for victims and at the same time taking measures to avoid non-recurrence. This is unprecedented and transitional justice stakeholders must be commented for springing into action through the formation of the NTJWG to ensure that the fruits of the struggle for justice realised in the new constitution are not stolen.

One of the journalists at the press briefing asked if the NTJWG was an expression of frustration by civil society at the delays by government in operationalising the NPRC.

It is clear in the background papers that while many actors maybe frustrated by the lackadaisical approach of the government to justice issues, the work of putting together the NTJWG was not reactionary to the government processes, but was rather proactive. This can be traced back to the Johannesburg Symposium on Civil Society and Justice, which was held in August 2003.

Having noted that, we must acknowledge that in a democracy, mistrust of government is very healthy, hence the need to put in place measures to check the excesses of government, monitor the processes and safeguard the interests of stakeholders. This is the space that we see the NTJWG occupying in Zimbabwe. It is necessary to do so because there are real threats against the NPRC and all other constitutionally established justice mechanisms.

In the next instalment, we will try to understand the mandate of the NTJWG and how it can safeguard the interests of the stakeholders. We will try to locate its role in the broad and complex transitional justice matrix.

Dzikamai Bere & Prosper Maguchu contribute to this column in their personal capacity. The views contained here are not those of the organisations they are associated with. For feedback write to dzikamaibere@gmail.com

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