Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Storm Over Rights Commission

Mugabe's plans to establish a human rights body greeted with contempt.
A proposal by President Robert Mugabe's ZANU PF government to establish a Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission has been greeted with widespread scorn and cynicism by rights groups who have been protesting the Mugabe administration's extra-judicial killings and other forms of oppression for decades.

"In Zimbabwe's body politic the history of [government-appointed] commissions, more so on such contested issues as human rights, is fraught with irregularities," said Phillip Pasirayi, director of information of Crisis In Zimbabwe, a coalition of more than 350 civil society organisations advocating human rights and good governance.

"After the massacre and torture by state security agents of thousands of Zimbabwean defenceless citizens in Matebeleland and Midlands provinces during the early Eighties, President Mugabe appointed a commission led by Justice Chihambakwe to investigate human rights abuses, but decades have passed without the report being made known to the public.

"It is this lack of political commitment and sheer Machiavellian tendencies that will render the Human Rights Commission debate another monumental failure … It is yet another attempt by the ruling elite to hoodwink the Southern African Development Community, SADC, the African Union, AU, and the entire international community that ZANU PF is reforming and that [Zimbabwe] should be embraced as a democratic country."

Pasirayi's reference to the unpublished report on Matabeleland and Midlands concerned the massacres in 1983-84 of an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 peasants in those two provinces by Mugabe's notorious North Korean-trained 5th Brigade.

The leader of the 5th Brigade, Air Marshal Perence Shiri, a totally ruthless man known as "Black Jesus", christened the year-long campaign of mass murder, beatings and property burnings of alleged anti-Mugabe dissidents "Gukurahundi" - a Shona language expression that translates as "the rain that washes away the chaff before the spring rain". Shiri and the 5th Brigade were answerable only to Mugabe direct, not to the normal army command structures.

A report on Gukurahundi by Zimbabwe's Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, based on a five-year-long investigation, said, "Most of the dead were killed in public executions involving between one and twelve people at a time.

"Thousands of civilians were detained and transported to large detention centres where they were then tortured. At Bhalagwe camp in Matobo District, several thousand civilians were detained at any one time, and there were daily deaths in this camp. The dead were thrown down Antelope Mine, and in 1992 bones were taken out of the mine shaft. People in the region claim there are many other mines with bones in them."

The Catholic commission used testimony from more than a thousand witnesses, but Mugabe dismissed it as merely the work of "mischief makers in religious garb".

Human rights groups have been calling unsuccessfully for two decades for Air Marshal Shiri, from Mugabe's home village, to be tried for crimes against humanity. The groups have been recalling scores of gross abuses of Zimbabweans' human rights by the Mugabe government that make it impossible for them to take the proposed Human Rights Commission seriously.

In January 1999, The Standard, an independent weekly newspaper, splashed on its front page a story of an alleged coup plot to topple Mugabe.

In what was to become one of Zimbabwe's most infamous torture cases, the army detained the reporter, Ray Choto, and his editor, Mark Chavunduka, without legal charges for ten days. They were taken to an army barracks where they were stripped naked by military intelligence officers and Central Intelligence Organisation agents, beaten with planks and subjected to electric shocks on their genitals. They were then taken in leg irons to another location where they were electrocuted and their heads wrapped in plastic bags and submerged in a water tank in mock drownings.

Choto and Chavunduka were so badly injured and traumatised that subsequently they received several months of treatment in London at the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, a centre established in memory of people killed and tortured in Nazi Germany.

Chavunduka has since died and Choto has settled in the United States. Seven years later, no official inquiry has been held into the torture of the two journalists.

The 5th Brigade's Gukurahundi massacres and the torturing of Choto and Chavunduka were just two of many hundreds of reasons why Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa's announcement in parliament in late May of the government's intention to create a Human Rights Commission was greeted with disdain.

Some responded to the announcement with fresh calls for the United Nations Security Council to refer Mugabe to the International Criminal Court at The Hague to be investigated for crimes against humanity. "He ranks on the same level with Slobodan Milosevic, Saddam Hussein, Idi Amin, Alexander Lukashenko and their kind," said Zimbabwean human rights activist Lynn Mhlanga. "Therefore he can be indicted.

"Instead of being diplomatic about this issue, as is currently being done, we need to simply to say no to human rights abuses. We need to take a stance against an unrepentant dictator who is insensitive to the cries of his own people."

Justice Minister Chinamasa, who has frequently attacked civil society groups for their "threats to peace and security in Zimbabwe", said the new Human Rights Commission would be part of the ZANU PF government's "quest to create a culture of human rights".

He went on, "The commission will have the responsibility to promote and protect human rights ... It will have the mandate to receive, investigate and redress any complaints relating to human rights."

Chinamasa said the decision to create the commission had been made following a flurry of "manufactured" reports on human rights abuses by non-government organisations over the past six years. "They [the NGOs] manufacture and peddle false allegations," said the justice minister who added that they were aimed at attacking Mugabe and his government. He said the creation of the commission would require an amendment to the constitution.

On June 21, Chinamasa launched another blistering attack in Geneva on Zimbabwe's civil society at the inauguration of the United Nations' new Human Human Rights Council. In a speech that portrayed ZANU PF as the victim of non-government organisations, Chinamasa urged the UN council to prohibit direct funding by developed countries of NGOs working in the field of human rights and governance in Zimbabwe and other African states.

Fambai Ngirande, spokesman for Zimbabwe's umbrella National Association of Non-Governmental Organisations, said Chinamasa's demand was totally cynical. Ngirande said ordinary Zimbabweans were heavily dependent on support from NGOs because the government has failed to supply the basic needs of its citizens. He said NGOs were under no pressure from the West or the international community as a whole to interfere in political affairs, as alleged by Chinamasa in Geneva.

As Chinamasa was making his speech, the Amani Trust, a Zimbabwean NGO which helps victims of torture, and ActionAid, an international development agency, released a report saying that one in ten people over the age of thirty in the western province of Matabeleland had been a victim of government torture. Rape, electrocution, severe beatings, forced nakedness, witnessing the torture of family members and friends and mock executions are just some of the state-sanctioned methods of torture used by the CIO and military intelligence, said the report.

A spokesman for the Amani Trust said, "As the government sanctions torture as a method of keeping the population under control, and with the health sector having collapsed, the hope of any of them [victims of torture] receiving the necessary treatment is out of the question."

The Harare-based Zimbabwe Human Rights Association, ZimRights, an NGO dedicated to promoting human rights, noted that civil society organisations working in the field of human rights would be required to affiliate to the commission. This, said ZimRights, would fit the government's desire to "reign in NGOs which the government views as hostile".

Dismissing the commission as "a public relations gimmick to spruce up the battered image of the government", ZimRights said that if Mugabe was serious about promoting human rights he would repeal the rafts of repressive legislation he has introduced, limiting press freedoms and the right to assemble, and begin to honour international human rights instruments to which the government is a signatory.

The move by Mugabe and Chinamasa comes while last year's Operation Murambatsvina (Operation Drive Out the Filth) is still fresh in people's minds. Hundreds of thousands of urban homes of people believed to be opposition supporters were destroyed by police, soldiers and youth militias loyal to the head of state.

The Mugabe government has also hounded huge numbers of people into exile as refugees while many opposition activists have been killed. In the past six years, some three million Zimbabweans are believed to have fled the country.

Amnesty International, in a recent report, said the Mugabe government had used the law to violate human rights defenders' rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly. "Individual defenders are arbitrarily arrested and detained, assaulted and harassed by state agents," said the report. "Some have been subjected to torture and inhuman or degrading treatment." Human rights lawyers, including prominent attorneys such as Beatrice Mtetwa, Gugulethu Moyo and Alec Muchadehama, had been assaulted and beaten by police.

Pius Ncube, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Bulawayo, the Zimbabwe president's most outspoken critic, dismissed Mugabe as "a fascist, a fraudster, an incorrigible liar and a Godless murderer".

Ruminating on what Christ might say if he was an itinerant preacher in Zimbabwe today, Archbishop Ncube said, "Because Christ was God-centred and compassionate, he would condemn the way the government uses every opportunity to oppress the people. Christ would condemn the violence, widespread rape and torture by government agencies and the youth militia."

The Archbishop added, "I don't think Christ would have survived in Zimbabwe. Mugabe's government doesn't like people who speak the truth. Plenty of people [who criticise the government] have died mysteriously. Christ wouldn't have had a chance."

The National Constitutional Assembly - a civic group campaigning for a new democratic constitution - issued a statement expressing outrage at the government's proposal, dismissing its approach as "piecemeal, tokenist and undemocratic". The NCA added that the Human Rights Commission would "merely serve as an additional bureaucratic ruling to prevent and delay Zimbabweans from mounting human rights complaints in the international arena which offers their only hope".

Crisis In Zimbabwe said the government's proposal had not been made in good faith. "The fact that the executive, in this case President Mugabe, will have the power to appoint the commission when he is one of the accused makes the whole proposal ridiculous," spokesman Itai Zimunya told IWPR. "What we call for is a new democratic constitution because we can't talk of a Human Rights Commission while news dissemination is limited in Zimbabwe and right now the government is busy with the Interception of Communications bill."

The proposed Interception of Communications Law 2006 will empower the chief of defence intelligence, the director-general of the Central Intelligence Organisation, the national police commissioner and the commisioner-general of the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority to intercept telephone, e-mail and cellular phone messages. It will also give state agencies powers to open mail passing through the postal and courier services. It stipulates that operators of telecommunications services will be compelled to install software and hardware to enable them to intercept and store information as directed by the state.

Tino Zhakata is the pseudonym of an IWPR reporter in Zimbabwe.