New Zimbabwe constitution can usher in new culture of human rights

Zimbabwe’s new constitution presents a golden opportunity for the country to break away from a culture of impunity for human rights violations, Amnesty International said today.President Robert Mugabe today signed into law a new constitution, following a three-year constitution-making process to replace the Lancaster House constitution adopted at independence in 1980.“The new constitution is a positive development with the potential to increase ordinary people’s enjoyment of their basic rights,” said Noel Kututwa, Amnesty International’s Africa deputy director.“Not only is the world watching whether the country has truly turned the corner on this historic day, but millions of people in Zimbabwe hope that this new constitution will usher in a new political order where human rights are respected and protected.” The constitution-making process suffered ongoing delays and controversy, but March’s referendum on the new constitution passed off relatively peacefully and resulted in an overwhelming ‘yes’ vote. Repressive laws that have been used to stifle government critics are expected to be repealed, or at least amended, under the new constitution.”Zimbabwe’s lawmakers are now expected to realign laws such as the Public Order and Security Act, which have been used in the past to deny people their civil and political rights,” said Noel Kututwa. There has been an increase in human rights violations in Zimbabwe since the political crisis that started in 2000 and led to millions fleeing the country to escape political persecution and economic hardship.In 2008, more than 200 people were killed in state-sponsored violence during the second round of the presidential elections, while thousands were tortured and injured. The adoption of a new constitution is expected to lead to an election of a new government, following more than four years of a coalition government established under a political deal brokered by the Southern Africa Development Community. “The next election in Zimbabwe presents a real test for the authorities to prove their commitment to the declaration of rights in the new constitution,” said Noel Kututwa. “The real test is whether all political parties and civil society organizations will enjoy their rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly.” In recent months, a number of high profile civil society organizations in Zimbabwe have had their offices raided by police, while human rights defenders have been arbitrarily arrested.“More attacks on human rights defenders will cast doubt on the government’s commitment to uphold the declaration of rights in the new constitution,” said Noel Kututwa.“The police authorities must speed up human rights education, starting with officers in the Law and Order Section of the Zimbabwe Republic Police who have been at the forefront of restricting fundamental freedoms.”Amnesty International also called on the government to provide adequate funding to the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission, as well as urging the next parliament to seriously consider total abolition of the death penalty.“The death penalty is one of the colonial legacies haunting a free Zimbabwe today,” said Noel Kututwa.