The “fast track” land reform program in Zimbabwe has been accompanied by significant human rights abuses that harm the very people it was designed to assist, Human Rights Watch charged in a report released on the eve of Zimbabwe’s elections.

Militia groups affiliated with the party of President Robert Mugabe have carried out serious acts of violence against rural dwellers and landless workers on commercial farms, the report said. Human Rights Watch also received reports of discrimination in the distribution of land on political grounds.
“Many of the people who were supposed to benefit from this reform have actually been targets of the violence,” said Peter Takirambudde, executive director of the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch.

Colonial policies of expropriation gave white farmers huge, free tracts of fertile land in what is now Zimbabwe, while rural black people were restricted to crowded “tribal reserves” of little agricultural value. From independence in 1980 until 2000, this unjust situation changed little.

In 2000, President Mugabe’s government passed new laws allowing expropriation of land without compensation, and encouraging landless peasants to occupy commercial farmland.

In the forty-page report, “Fast Track Land Reform in Zimbabwe,” Human Rights Watch provides testimonies from people who said that many of those who wanted land under the “fast track” program had to show support for the ruling party, ZANU-PF, and those who supported the opposition were denied land. The landless laborers who live and work on the commercial farms have been largely excluded from land redistribution. Among the most disadvantaged Zimbabweans, they have also been particular targets of state-sponsored violence.

The government also failed to ensure that women, particularly married women, benefited from the land reform, despite its stated commitment to gender balance.

While there has been some reduced violence on commercial farms in recent months, and undoubtedly some land has been allocated, problems persist. Many people are being allocated land without security of title and without adequate start-up infrastructure or resources to become self-sufficient farmers.

Party militias led by veterans of Zimbabwe’s liberation war have been in the forefront of the violence, though farm workers and opposition supporters have also retaliated on occasion. The Human Rights Watch report, researched in 2001, documents how these militia assaulted farm owners, farm workers, and residents of rural areas surrounding commercial farmland. The report says that the police did almost nothing to stop the violence.

Human Rights Watch called for the post-election government in Zimbabwe to bring to justice those responsible for abuses, and take steps to ensure that the violence does not recur. Additionally, any government-sponsored land reform must respect the rule of law.

A successful program of land reform is crucial for human rights in Zimbabwe, and the international community should be committed to addressing the plight of rural dwellers and farm workers. International logistic and financial assistance is critical to improve the infrastructure necessary to for land reform.