Zimbabwe can no longer afford to remain polarised and intolerant for the reconstruction of the country to bear fruit, a leading human rights defender has said.
The big interview BY TAPIWA ZIVIRA
Frances Lovemore, the director of the Counselling Services Unit (CSU), said she was worried about acts of retribution against MDC Alliance followers blamed on Zanu PF supporters and soldiers in the aftermath of the July 30 elections.
Lovemore (FL), who has been accused by President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government of fabricating reports about the alleged human rights violations that followed the historic polls, told our reporter Tapiwa Zivira that the CSU had attended to a number of victims of political violence.
She dismissed allegations that she chickened out of a meeting with vice-president Constantino Chiwenga because she could not defend “the lies”.
Frances said she was ready to meet Chiwenga any time as long as there was a clear agenda. Below are excerpts from the interview.
TZ: Please tell us briefly what motivated the setting-up of the CSU and what does it do?
FL: The Counselling Services Unit was established in 2003 as a registered medical facility to provide access to medical treatment, psychological counselling and rehabilitation for victims of organised violence and torture in Zimbabwe.
It evolved from Amani Trust after the escalation in state-sanctioned violence in 2000 when many people required medical and surgical treatment for their injuries, and were too afraid to attend the local hospitals and clinics.
The clinic provides access to best practice medical and psychological treatment through a network of service providers countrywide, and is non-partisan in all services provided.
CSU is a member of the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT), an independent, international health organisation that supports the rehabilitation of torture victims and works for the prevention of torture worldwide.
CSU adheres to the principles of the United Nations Convention against Torture and utilises the gold standard Istanbul Protocol for treatment and medical and legal documentation of survivors of torture.
CSU upholds the principles of access to rehabilitation for victims of torture as clearly articulated in the African Charter on Human And People’s Rights, and the United Nations Convention against Torture, and in particular that rehabilitation includes redress and restitution and compensation.
CSU also believes that the state has the responsibility to provide the services of rehabilitation, and envisions that the government of Zimbabwe will uphold its commitment as articulated in the constitution, section 53, that no person may be subjected to physical or psychological torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Torture now needs to be defined and criminalised in Zimbabwe.
TZ: How many victims of political violence have you assisted since you were established and is there an identifiable pattern you can map in terms of violations?
FL: Over the past 18 years more than 25 000 people from across the political, ethnic and social divides in Zimbabwe have utilised our services, and from a recent national community mapping activity, we estimate that many thousands more would benefit from our psychological rehabilitation and support programmes.
Sadly, many of the primary beneficiaries have had multiple incidents of abduction and torture over the years.
The patterns of violence and torture are strongly correlated to elections and periods of perceived threat to the state, and are targeted at those who are viewed as “enemies”, so sadly over the years, many who have been dismissed from the ruling party have had to seek our services for injuries and threats.
The patterns can also be directly linked to inflammatory rhetoric in the media, and the political parties hate speech and lack of respect for the fundamental human rights and freedoms of all Zimbabweans.
As very little redress has occurred for victims, one of our current concerns is that if political tolerance is not rapidly promoted and practiced, retributive violence may become more prevalent.
TZ: You are part of the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum, which claims to have recorded tens of human rights violations since the July 30 elections. Where do you fit in that matrix?
FL: CSU is a founder member of the Forum, through the Amani Trust, and as a member, works collaboratively with the Forum in preparing these important reports documenting human rights violations, assisting in referrals to the Chapter 12 commissions, assisting victims to report to the police who have a mandate to protect citizens from violence and torture and in preparation for legal processes to obtain redress for victims.
CSU has championed the need for a reconciliation and reparation process since the inaugural conference in 2003 when these critical national issues were first discussed by civil society.
The formation of the Chapter 12 commissions is partly as a result of intense lobbying by members of the Forum over many years, and CSU has played its role in assisting in the advocacy for the rights of victims.
TZ: How many people have you assisted yourself post July 30 and what is the nature of the violations?
FL: In the early years of CSU we were a small group of medical professionals who were prepared to provide access to treatment for victims, often under threat from the state, and often having to work away from the premises.
Many victims were threatened to not seek treatment and were assaulted again after leaving the hospital.
Over time more medical professionals have been willing to accept and treat victims openly and we now have a network of dedicated consultants and practitioners who provide treatment services.
As CSU, we do not individualise members of the team, we have a team approach to all services that are provided and we all contribute to the final goal of a well-rehabilitated survivor who is able to function fully in his or her community.
TZ: The government has accused you of fabricating reports of human rights violations. What is your response to that?
FL: CSU has a golden rule on the clinical management and reporting of victims of human rights violations, unless a person has been seen and treated through our network of services, the violation does not form part of our record of violations.
Therefore, all violations reported by CSU have been physically verified, and all victims are encouraged to make police reports on their violations, therefore the government has access to their own reports of human rights abuse.
Since the operationalisation of the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission, CSU has referred many of its cases to the secretariat, who have been seized with the cases.
CSU looks forward to a professional relationship with the National Peace and Reconciliation Commission where hopefully, much of what has happened in Zimbabwe will be investigated openly and appropriate remedy for the victims, as articulated by the victims, will be mandated by the commission.
TZ: How about accusations that you chickened out of a meeting with Vice-President Constantino Chiwenga because you could not defend the human rights violations claims?
FL: The invitation to meet the vice-president was not a formal invitation from either himself or his office, and was conveyed to me via a Zimbabwean friend.
As the issues to be discussed are of great importance, as always, CSU and myself prefer to have formal meetings with an agreed agenda, and to attend meetings with all the representatives of the contributing organisations to the report.
I am not mandated to speak on my own to a report, which is prepared by the members of the Forum.
The vice-president is welcome to invite us for a discussion on the implications for all Zimbabweans of the events that are unfolding after the elections.
CSU, like the vice-president, is gravely concerned with regard to the implications of continued violations of human rights, and beseeches the government to uphold the constitutional freedoms of all Zimbabweans.
TZ: Did you assist any victims of the August 1 army shootings in Harare and what was the nature of their injuries?
FL: Several victims of the August 1 shootings required surgery to remove shrapnel, and CSU facilitated the procedures.
CSU also treated several victims who sustained fractures and severe soft tissue injuries from the beatings both on August 1, and subsequently during the nights of the first few days of August.
TZ: Did any of those victims die while still under your care?
FL: Patients seeking services from CSU are in the process of recovery, and no one has died while under our care.
TZ: Would you say there is any deterioration in the human rights situation after the elections?
FL: Sadly, after the elections, there has been deterioration in political tolerance and freedom, and many people fear for their safety and for retribution.
CSU strongly recommends that the state and government uphold the constitution and recognise the fundamental human rights and freedoms for all Zimbabweans regardless of political party membership, religion or race, and actively promotes tolerance and protects all citizens.
TZ: According to the Sunday Mail, the president’s spokesperson attacked you personally, even mentioning your race. Do such things not make you feel vulnerable given the tendency by authorities in Zimbabwe to target human rights defenders like you for persecution?
FL: Sadly, the unwarranted attack on myself and my race reflects the reality that 38 years after independence, we are still grappling with identity issues, and choose to use race as a vilifying mechanism.
It is highly indicative of the reality that we have never, as a nation, sought healing and reconciliation, nor have we ever confronted the hard issues of why we remain polarised and divided on so many key development issues and are unable to depoliticise so much of our activity.
As a medical practitioner, trained in Zimbabwe and in practice for nearly 30 years, and deeply committed to social justice for all Zimbabweans, I truly believe that after this election, it is imperative that a national dialogue and national healing becomes a priority of the new government.
Zimbabwe can no longer afford to remain so polarised and intolerant and we need to heal the very deep wounds that have been inflicted on all Zimbabweans.