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Submission to the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group
January 30, 2002
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Key Sections


Recommendations to the Commonwealth

Background: "Firm Action Against Violence and Intimidation"- Zimbabwe's Abuja Commitment

Freedom of Expression

Law Reform and the Rule of Law

Organized Violence by State Agents and Ruling Party Supporters



On September 8, 2001, the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG), established in 1995 to monitor Commonwealth member states' respect for democracy and the rule of law, brokered an agreement with the Zimbabwe government over the continuing crisis in that country. At a meeting in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, Zimbabwe agreed to end illegal occupations of farms, promoted by the government since February 2000, and respect the rule of law. In return, the United Kingdom and other "international partners" pledged to support the land reform process.

Written into the agreement were a number of commitments that the Zimbabwe delegation, headed by Foreign Minister Stan Mudenge, made to the meeting. These included: no new farm occupations; removal of occupiers of farms that were not listed for resettlement; restoration of the rule of law to the land reform programme; respect for freedom of expression; and firm action against violence and intimidation.

This report looks at a number of the explicit commitments made by the Zimbabwe government at Abuja and reviews how these have been respected in practice. Almost immediately after it had signed the agreement, there were indications that the government was retreating from the promises made. In the following months, it has become yet clearer that the government's commitment to the agreement was only on paper. Human Rights Watch is preparing a separate report on the issues surrounding land reform. This memorandum focuses on more general concerns about respect for the rule of law. In particular Human Rights Watch concludes the following:

Freedom of expression

Freedom of expression has been under assault both through legal restrictions and constant harassment and violence. A new bill gives the government the power to determine who may practice as a journalist and prohibits foreign news organizations from employing whom they choose. Although the bill has been rejected by the parliamentary committees responsible for both media and legal affairs, the government apparently remains determined to have it enacted before the forthcoming presidential elections. Despite the passage of a law earlier in 2001 legalizing private broadcasting, no broadcasting licences have been issued. The government retains a tight control over the publicly-funded Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation.

The privately-owned Daily News-the only independent daily newspaper-has been the target of a constant campaign of harassment by the frivolous application of criminal charges. The police have made no progress in investigating bombings of the newspaper's premises in April 2000 and January 2001.

Journalists and newspaper vendors are subject to constant harassment, threats, and violence by the police and by government sponsored militia (often led by veterans of the liberation war and thus often known as war veterans). Supporters of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change are victims of violence and exclusion from their jobs for the expression of their political views. Acts of violence against opposition supporters are carried out with total impunity by supporters of the ruling party.

Rule of Law

Government, state agencies such as the police, and supporters of the ruling party all display a disregard for the constitution, statute law, and the decisions of the courts. New legislation-enacted by decree-on the land issue purports to legalize unlawful land occupations dating back to May 2000. This is intended to bypass unfavorable Supreme Court rulings. Judges have resigned after violent threats-and no offer of protection from the authorities. A Supreme Court that is now balanced in the government's favor revisits previous judgments in order to reverse them.

New legislation on public order and security was passed on January 10 and will drastically infringe several constitutional rights, including freedom of assembly, freedom of expression, and freedom of movement.


Thousands of Zimbabweans, almost all of them presumed supporters of the opposition, farmers and farm workers, have been the victims of political and land-related violence since the Abuja agreement. There has been no perceptible effort on the government's part to restrain its supporters from violence. In a number of documented instances since the Abuja agreement, notably in mid-November in Zimbabwe's second city Bulawayo, the police have escorted and protected supporters of the ruling party engaging in criminal acts of violence.

In conclusion, not only have the terms of the Abuja agreement not been respected: official disrespect for the rule of law and constitutionally guaranteed right has, if anything, increased during the past four months.