(London) - SADC Heads of State and Government have once again failed to establish concrete measures for addressing the human rights problems in Zimbabwe, Human Rights Watch said today. The SADC leaders’ meeting in Lusaka on August 18 made a commendable commitment to a free and peaceful election in Zimbabwe in 2008, but took no clear measures to realize their vision of “allowing the people of Zimbabwe to elect the leaders of their choice in an atmosphere of peace and tranquility.”

“The summit has regrettably squandered a critical opportunity to re-examine the negotiation mandate it gave to South African President Mbeki and to include specific measures to address continued human rights violations in Zimbabwe,” said Tiseke Kasambala, Zimbabwe researcher at Human Rights Watch. “SADC’s inability to act on this urgent situation is deeply disappointing.”

SADC’s final communiqué from the summit commended President Thabo Mbeki’s efforts to mediate talks between Zimbabwe’s ruling party and the opposition, which it said was “progressing smoothly.” The communiqué also welcomed the progress of the mediation talks and called on both political parties to expedite the process of negotiations so that Zimbabwe’s elections could be held in an atmosphere of peace.

However, the SADC leaders did not press for an end to the pervasive human rights violations currently taking place in Zimbabwe, set a specific timeline for progress in the mediation talks, or create a framework for addressing the human rights situation in the country. The new chairperson of SADC, President Levy Mwanawasa of Zambia, reportedly told journalists at the summit’s closing press conference that SADC leaders felt that the problems in Zimbabwe were “exaggerated.”

Human Rights Watch has long argued that the human rights abuses taking place in Zimbabwe and the Zimbabwean government’s intransigence demand a meaningful response from SADC leaders, including a focused scrutiny of the human rights situation in Zimbabwe.

“It is particularly disturbing that SADC leaders continue to categorically fail in acknowledging the central role of Zimbabwe’s grave human rights crisis in the country’s political and economic collapse,” said Kasambala.

The human rights situation in Zimbabwe has significantly deteriorated in the past year: police have arbitrarily arrested and beaten hundreds of civil society activists in custody; police use of excessive and unnecessary force has disrupted peaceful demonstrations; the authorities continue to use repressive laws to prevent criticism of the government; and credible allegations continue of torture of detainees in police custody. The government has not investigated any of the serious abuses, much less brought to account the perpetrators.

“SADC must establish clear benchmarks and a timeline for its initiative on Zimbabwe. It is clear that the negotiations alone will not address the atmosphere of violence and impunity that has developed in the country,” said Kasambala. “The people of Zimbabwe deserve much better from this regional body.”