Presidential elections scheduled for March 9-10 in Zimbabwe are highly unlikely to be free and fair, Human Rights Watch charged in a submission to the Commonwealth today.

In its submission to the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group, meeting in London on January 30, Human Rights Watch said that the government of President Robert Mugabe had intimidated opponents, imposed legal restrictions on them, and engaged in extensive political violence.

Unless the Zimbabwe government immediately fulfilled a set of minimum conditions it should face the threat of suspension from the international organization at the next Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, due in March.

“Respect for human rights in Zimbabwe has deteriorated rapidly over the last two years,” said Peter Takirambudde, executive director of the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch. “The Commonwealth should insist that President Mugabe take immediate steps to end political violence and restore the rule of law.”

In the last few weeks, parliament in Zimbabwe has passed or introduced new legislation that will drastically infringe several constitutional rights, including freedom of assembly, freedom of expression and of the media, and freedom of movement. Journalists and newspaper vendors are subject to constant harassment, threats, and violence by the police and by government-sponsored militia.

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. At the September meeting in the Nigerian capital of 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.

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.

At its January 30 meeting, the CMAG will consider whether formally to place Zimbabwe on its agenda—that is, to review its compliance with the fundamental standards, principles and values of the organization.

Human Rights Watch believes that Zimbabwe should be placed on the CMAG agenda and that the government should be given a series of clearly specified conditions that it must immediately fulfill. These conditions include:

  • Withdrawal or repeal of legislation in violation of constitutional rights and restrictive of political activity;
  • Clear public instructions to the police and other law enforcement agencies that perpetrators of public violence should be dealt with, with the full force of the law;
  • Prompt disciplinary and judicial measures against police and other law enforcement officers who fail to adhere to these instructions.

The immediate cessation of violence, accompanied by these minimum steps, would begin to re-establish an environment in which political debate can take place freely, Human Rights Watch said.