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SADC must deal with human rights abuses to ensure peaceful Zimbabwe elections

By Michelle Kigari, Amnesty International's Deputy Director for Africa

As leaders of the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) meet in Johannesburg this weekend in yet another attempt to resolve the Zimbabwe crisis, the big question remains whether a credible election is possible without concrete steps to end on-going human rights violations.

Up until 31 March when the SADC Organ Troika on Politics, Defense and Security Cooperation categorically acknowledged the “resurgence of violence, arrests and intimidation in Zimbabwe” it was doubtful whether SADC had the political will to speak out against human rights abuses.

The regional bloc seemed oblivious to the arbitrary arrests, malicious prosecutions, torture and other blatant violations of human rights afflicting Zimbabwe.

SADC needs to appreciate that respect for human rights lies at the heart of any durable solution and that they need to speak out strongly when these rights are violated.  President Mugabe and the ZANU-PF party in Zimbabwe’s Government of National Unity (GNU) are effectively in control of the police and army and other state institutions which continue to commit human rights violations with impunity.

Despite the formation of the unity government over two years ago, the President  has done little to ensure that the state institutions under his party’s direct control respect human rights enshrined in the country’s own constitution and in the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

This weekend, behind the closed doors of the extraordinary summit, SADC leaders will presumably hear the ZANU-PF party accusing the MDC formation led by Prime Minister Tsvangirai (MDC-T) of committing violence with some evidence compiled by the police to support this argument.  They will hear claims that the condemnatory position taken by the Organ Troika in Livingstone, Zambia, in March, was based on false information from the MDC.  MDC activists are not all saints:    in recent weeks, particularly in the run up to the party’s congress in April, MDC-T members were involved in intra-party violence.  Individuals committing such violence should  be held responsible for their actions.

Prime Minister Tsvangirai and his party will presumably also tell the SADC leaders of the malicious prosecutions of members of his party, including the arrest of senior members serving in the unity government.  He may also talk about vilification of his party in state media.  He might report on the threats and intimidation members of his party face in rural areas and how paradoxically police often arrest the victims of violence, rather than the perpetrators (who are usually ZANU-PF supporters).

However, the SADC leaders may not hear that which is most important - the voice of ordinary Zimbabweans. The SADC leaders need to hear of the suffering by ordinary Zimbabwean people that has arisen from the unresolved contestation of political power.

They need to know about a 17 year-old boy who was beaten on 20 May by police in Bulawayo trying to force him to disclose the telephone number of a leader of the social justice movement, Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA).  The boy was arrested by the Law and Order Section of the Zimbabwe Republic Police’s Criminal Investigation Department after they failed to locate his mother who is a member of WOZA.

Six WOZA activists arrested around the same time spent five nights in police cells.  Their lawyers told the courts that the women had been denied food, access to the lawyers and even more seriously police threatened them with death and enforced disappearance. Police verbally abused them, calling them prostitutes.  The women’s “crime” is that they engage in peaceful action drawing attention to lack of clean water, exorbitant electricity bills and the high cost of food, health care and other basic services.

SADC leaders need to hear about the 45 social justice activists arrested in February 2011 as they attended a lecture to discuss events in North Africa.  They were charged with treason and were at risk of being sentenced to death if convicted.  Thirty-nine of the activists were acquitted because the court found they had no case to answer.  The remaining six still face charges of subverting the constitution, though the treason charges had been dropped.

The list of human rights violations against perceived opponents of President Mugabe’s party is long.  It includes actors arrested for producing a play calling on government to address human rights violations from the 2008 state-sponsored election violence, and a Facebook user arrested and charged for posting a comment on the Prime Minister’s website.  It also includes human rights workers arrested for facilitating meetings with victims of violence.

SADC leaders need to know that most Zimbabweans are afraid that the country could slide back to levels of violence witnessed in 2008 simply because little, if anything, has been done to implement the fundamental issues identified for reform within the Global Political Agreement (GPA), including human rights training for the police, army and other state institutions.

Amnesty International believes that SADC leaders in their deliberations on the roadmap to elections need to look beyond an immediate political objective of securing an accord between ZANU-PF and the MDC-T.  An accord will not end the human rights crisis in Zimbabwe and will certainly not result in an undisputed election.  SADC must insist that President Mugabe and Prime Minister Tsvangirai take clear steps within their parties and government to address the legacy of impunity for human rights abuses.

SADC’s own reputation is at stake as the guarantor to the GPA.  Will SADC leaders have the temerity to operate impartially and demand an immediate end to human rights violations by Zimbabwean security forces and ZANU PF militias?

As the SADC leaders meet in Johannesburg will they pay attention to the report by the Organ on Politics, Defense and Security Cooperation and act in an impartial manner and stand on the side of victims of human rights violations?  Or will they allow themselves to be talked into issuing another hollow statement that would perpetuate a climate of fear in Zimbabwe?