opinionBy Clarence Siziba
Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who is also responsible for the Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs ministry, last Thursday appeared before the United Nations Human Rights Council for consideration and adoption of Zimbabwe’s report on the outcome of the review recommendations made by members following Zimbabwe’s presentation under the auspices of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) mechanism in November last year.
Resolution 60/251 created the UPR through the UN General Assembly on March 15, 2006.
It is a process that involves a review of the human rights records of all UN member states.
Established under the auspices of the Human Rights Council, it provides an opportunity for each state to declare what actions it has taken to improve the human rights situation in their country and to fulfil their human rights obligations.
The ultimate aim of this mechanism is to improve the human rights situation in all countries and address human rights violations wherever they occur.
As part of the review process, states submit their own reports regarding the human rights situation in their respective countries, and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights submits a shadow report, informed by written submissions from civil society organisations.
Following the reports, the Human Rights Council meets with the state in question, and issues recommendations on how the State can improve its human rights record.
The State under Review chooses which recommendations it would like to accept. Civil society organisations work with and/or lobby the state to ensure that these recommendations are implemented.
Zimbabwe was first reviewed in 2011.
During the November 2016 session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva, Mnangagwa presented the report of Zimbabwe’s second cycle of the UPR.
Out of the 260 recommendations tabled, Zimbabwe supported 142 and noted 18, while the remaining 100 were deferred for further consideration.
Thursday’s presentation was an update based on the review process the government undertook in relation to the recommendations that had been noted and/or deferred.
Of the 100 recommendations under review, Zimbabwe supported nine, bringing the total of supported recommendations to 151, while six were supported in part; the remainder were noted. This means the number of noted recommendations came to 103.
In his address, Mnangagwa reiterated Zimbabwe’s continued commitment to the promotion, respect, protection and fulfilment of the fundamental rights and freedoms of its people and expressed the government’s will continue to interact with the Human Rights Council and participate in the UPR process.
Appreciation was expressed to Zimbabwe’s development partners and the UN country team for the support given in this exercise.
Zimbabwe noted that various members repeated most of the recommendations made in November.
Of those noted, Mnangagwa pointed out that these were mostly inconsistent with national legislation and values.
These include the rights of LGBTI populations and the decriminalisation of sex work.
COC Nederland, in a joint statement with the Sexual Rights Centre and Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe expressed their disappointment with the continued criminalisation of sex work and same-sex relationships.
They pointed out that Zimbabwe receives funding from The Global Fund for HIV prevention programmes that include LGBTI components, however, none of the money has been used in pursuit of LGBTI initiatives.
For a country whose Constitution guarantees dignity, equality and non-discrimination, Zimbabwe’s continued policing of consensual, private sexual acts between same-sex partners points to hatred and intolerance and should be deemed unconstitutional and unjust in a democratic society.
Mnangagwa stressed that government’s commitment to the realisation and protection of human rights was supported by the establishment of the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission (ZHRC), which he claimed worked independently – yet, in the same breath, he indicated that the ZHRC receives funding from Treasury – a clear contradiction.
In its submission, the ZHRC fawningly lauded the government for being amenable to being bound by the UPR process and noted with appreciation the promulgation of the 2013 Constitution, which has an expanded Bill of Rights.
ZHRC urged the government to align legislation with the Constitution and make the gains envisaged by the Bill of Rights more tangible for Zimbabweans.
Turning to other recommendations, Mnangagwa indicated support for the recommendation to create a conducive environment for CSOs to operate, but objected to the extension of an invitation to the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights Defenders (HRDs) on the basis that this will be decided on its own merits.
He also noted that human rights agencies in Zimbabwe operate without undue restriction as long as they operate within the parameters of the law.
What this means in practice, however, remained obscure and was highlighted by civil society delegations, who pointed out that human rights defenders continue to be harassed by the police, the army and intelligence services, thereby, derogating from their freedom of speech, assembly and association.
In particular, Amnesty International proffered that last year it documented five cases of activists who were abducted, tortured, dumped and left for dead, including Patson Dzamara, brother to Itai, of Occupy Africa Unity Square fame, who was abducted two years ago and has not been heard of since.
Africa Culture International criticised Zimbabwe’s ineffectiveness in guaranteeing media and press freedom and called upon the government to take steps to facilitate freedom of expression.
Zimbabwe noted the recommendation to ratify the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, pointing out that the Zimbabwean legal framework prohibits torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading forms of punishment.
Partial support was given for the recommendation to abolish corporal punishment on the basis that the matter was pending before the Constitutional Court.
The recommendation to reform laws relating to family, marriage and divorce laws was noted.
Mnangagwa indicated that the Constitution provides that the age of marriage is 18 years and the Constitutional Court confirmed this when it pronounced on the illegality of early and forced child marriage.
While the court has made this pronouncement, the situation on the ground is different, as Zimbabwe continues to have one of the highest incidences of child marriage in the world.
Mnangagwa cited various challenges faced by Zimbabwe in the recent past, which have militated against government’s efforts to respect, protect and promote human rights.
The El Nino induced drought and Cyclone Dineo were mentioned as having adversely affected the implementation of socio-economic rights, with more than 800 000 households suffering the effects of these weather phenomena.
Mnangwagwa expressed the hope that the command agriculture scheme – which was recently criticised by Higher Education minister Jonathan Moyo – would mitigate some of the challenges faced by vulnerable populations in the country.
The oft-repeated mantra of unfair, unilateral and illegal sanctions also came up in the report.
Various members expressed support for Zimbabwe’s commitment to the UPR process and for implementing some of the recommendations made during this UPR cycle.
However, they came under fire from UN Watch, who argued that the endorsement of Zimbabwe’s report by 70% of the members was absurd given that the government interferes with the judiciary, fails to investigate abuses against human rights defenders, supports the invasion of farms and destroy informal markets amongst other infractions.
FIDH pointed out that the recently tabled Constitutional Amendment (Number 1) Bill is a premature effort to take away safeguards for an independent judiciary and is contrary to the position to align current legislation with the Constitution.
However, Mnangagwa insisted that the Constitution guarantees the independence of the judiciary, in spite of obvious moves by the government to undermine this impartiality.
The International Service for Human Rights and Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights added that the Cybercrime Bill should not be enacted, as it would further infringe on freedom of expression and privacy and urged the government to reconsider the recommendation to invite the special rapporteur on HRDs.
It was quite telling that, without any hint of irony, Zimbabwe got ringing endorsements from Syria, Iran, Sudan, Turkey and North Korea, who themselves are not known for upholding human rights.
Police, military and security services’ continued human rights violations was a sore point for civil society actors, but Mnangagwa seemed to gloss over this, but insisted he will continue to engage with non-state actors over this issue.
While Zimbabwe’s efforts to respect, protect and promote human rights should be celebrated, particularly with respect to children, there is a lot more to be done.
Health service delivery is lagging behind. Civil servants are basically abused by the government. More money is wasted on unnecessary vehicle purchases for those in government and than on e.g. fighting the recent typhoid outbreak.
The oft-repeated mantra on sanctions really needs to fall by the wayside, as the bulk are directed at certain politicians and their kin.
The government is its own worst enemy; until they decide to really deliver to the people, the human rights record of Zimbabwe will be blighted by many ills.
Clarence Siziba is a PhD candidate in international law.