The recent developments surrounding the United Nations High Commissioner’ for Human Rights’ visit to Zimbabwe come as no surprise to me. First Zimbabwean civil society made detailed preparations in anticipation of her visit and scheduled an appointment with her. Then the Zimbabwean government swiftly changed the plans and moved the meeting to Parliament Building, inviting a host of other organisations, popularly known as Governmental-Non-governmental organisations (GONGOs) . And then civil society issued a press statement disengaging from the government process.
However, one needs to analyse the decision for disengagement by civil society with a wider lense. A friend asked the following pertinent questions which I felt deserved to be posed here:
- Do the civil society leaders seriously believe that they will be attacked at the Parliament Building in the presence of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. If such attacks were to take place would that not be a great development in providing the much needed glaring evidence of the Zimbabwean government’s terrible human rights record?
- Does disengagement not reflect a flight from democratic tendencies because the parliament sessions represent a chance for open debate and dialogue?
- Is the civil society assertion that some NGOs invited to the Parliament meeting are not authentic NGOs justified, given that even among the mainstream organisations that are well established there are some known to be in “unholy” alliances with political parties within the inclusive government.
However, it is also important to note that civil society fears of being attacked at or inside the parliament building are real. Even parliamentarians themselves are not safe in parliament. The security details at parliament have a culture of harassing individuals seeking access into the building. Needless to say that any such visit by the High Commissioner ought to involve independent consultations with civil society organisations within their own domains where they feel safe and free to engage her without fear. It is also clear that the notice period given by the state to NGOs about the change of venues from the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights offices to Parliament was short and too abrupt.
It was anticipated that government would not treat the visit by the High Commissioner with the gravity it deserves. In 2009 the Zimbabwean government deported the then Special Rapporteur on Torture, Manfred Nowak from the Harare International airport yet he had embarked on his journey at their invite. In 2006 they fed the Special Rapporteur on Housing Anna Tibaijuka with falsehoods about the state of the right to housing in Zimbabwe. I am not surprised that the first step they have taken on this particular visit is to interfere with civil society participation. This move speaks volumes about the direction that the visit is likely going to take and the ball lies in the High Commissioner’s court to salvage the process and ensure it produces a narrative that reflects meaningful consultations with all stakeholders.
Read below the statement by Zimbabwean civil society organisations dis-engaging from the Parliament Process.
Zimbabwe Civil Society Organisations Joint Statement on the Visit by the UN Human Rights Commissioner to Zimbabwe
21 May 2012-We, the Zimbabwe Civic Society Organisations (CSOs), welcome the historic visit to Zimbabwe by the United Nations High Commissioner of Human Rights, Madam Navanethem Pillay.
We consider the visit by the High Commissioner, at the invitation of the Government of Zimbabwe, as a good opportunity for her to meet and interact with the various stakeholders involved in the promotion and protection of human rights, in order to make an informed assessment of the situation on the ground and make recommendations thereafter.
In preparation for the maiden trip by the UN High Commissioner, more than fifty CSOs from different clusters and from around the country, led by the legitimate umbrella bodies, organised themselves and prepared for the scheduled one-and-a-half hour meeting with Madam Pillay to apprise her on the situation on the ground. All these plans were at a very advanced stage – with the venue, time and agenda finalised and communicated with the advance party of the UN High Commissioner.
It was thus with great shock that we learned that the Government of Zimbabwe, through the permanent secretary of the Ministry of Justice and Legal Affairs had ambushed the plans that had been made and already put in place by CSOs in preparation for the visit by the High Commissioner. The permanent secretary, David Mangota, had unilaterally changed the venue of the meeting, moving it to Parliament building and had invited several other ‘organisations’ that are not known to be doing any work on human rights in Zimbabwe. It was also not lost on the participating CSOs that the venue proposed by the permanent secretary has been the scene of violence and disturbances in the past when issues around human rights were discussed. In the recent past, members of parliament, journalists, human rights defenders and members of the public have been beaten up and manhandled by hired thugs in full view of the disinterested police. To date, no action has been taken to prosecute the known and identified perpetrators. It is therefore mind-boggling that the permanent secretary has chosen to have a meeting of this nature at such a venue with its history.
It should be pointed out, at this juncture that the visit by the UN High Commissioner is meant to be a broad-based, open and transparent process that enables the UN High Commissioner to independently and objectively assess and better understand the human rights situation on the ground and to thereafter make recommendations to all relevant actors that promote the full enjoyment of human rights for all.
The visit is not meant to be a stage-managed process where state representatives take the UN High Commissioner through a guided tour to meet people who give a glorified and sugar-coated account of the human rights situation in Zimbabwe. It is an opportunity for self-introspection by everyone – including and especially the Government of Zimbabwe, which bears the primary responsibility for promoting and protecting human rights in this country – something they very often choose to ignore. In this vein the government ought to allow the UN High Commissioner to meet diverse groups of people who have an interest in issues of human rights, if the process is to have credibility and be beneficial to the generality of the citizens of Zimbabwe. Minister Chinamasa is already on record saying the government has nothing to hide – so why are they choosing to suppress interaction between Madam Pillay and credible and trusted CSOs who have been working on the ground for decades?
We today are here to make it clear that genuine CSOs will not be commandeered by government to a stage-managed civil society meeting with the High Commissioner which is organised by the government; neither will we legitimise a fraudulent exercise meant to give the UN human rights chief a superficial picture of our country’s human rights situation. We also wonder why government will not allow us a mere one hour and thirty minutes with the High Commissioner during a programme that is set to continue for 5 days, and especially when it does not know what we are going to say. Surely, government can and is free to organise its own meetings with its preferred “CSOs” and leave us to execute our mandate independently!
For the record CSOs will convene tomorrow at 11:30 am at the original venue as communicated to the organisations concerned, in anticipation of the arrival of the UN Human Rights Commissioner for a fruitful discussion – one which will definitely not occur at Senate Chambers in Parliament.
Artists for Democracy in Zimbabwe Trust
Bulawayo Progressive Residents Association
Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Zimbabwe
Combined Harare Residents Association
Commercial Farmers Union
Counselling Services Unit
Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition
Evangelical Fellowship of Zimbabwe
Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe
General Agriculture and Plantation Workers Union of Zimbabwe
Law Society of Zimbabwe
Matabeleland Constitutional Reform Agenda
Media Institute of Southern Africa
Media Monitoring Project of Zimbabwe
National Association of Non Governmental Organisations
National Association of Societies for the Care of the Handicapped
National Constitutional Assembly
National Youth Development Trust
Progressive Teachers Union of Zimbabwe
Research and Advocacy Unit
Student Solidarity Trust
Women and Law In Southern Africa
Women’s Coalition of Zimbabwe
Zimbabwe Association for Crime Prevention and Rehabilitation of the Offender
Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights
Zimbabwe Civic Education Trust
Zimbabwe Coalition on Debt and Development
Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions
Zimbabwe Council of Churches
Zimbabwe Election Support Network
Zimbabwe Human Rights Association
Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum
Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights
Zimbabwe Peace Project
Zimbabwe United Residents Trust