Skip to main content

Zimbabwe: African Leaders Should Intervene

Abusive Policies Deepen Humanitarian Crisis and Need for Protection

(Johannesburg) - The African Union should put concerted political pressure on Robert Mugabe to end Zimbabwe's longstanding political crisis, which has led to an ever-deepening humanitarian emergency and a regional crisis, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The African Union will hold a summit meeting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia from January 26 to February 3, 2009.

The 33-page report, "Crisis without Limits: Human Rights and Humanitarian Consequences of Political Repression in Zimbabwe," details the Zimbabwean government's responsibility for the country's humanitarian crisis. A cholera epidemic has left over 2,000 Zimbabweans dead and another 39,000 ill. Over 5 million Zimbabweans face severe food shortages and are dependent on international aid. Repeated political interference by the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union - Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) in the work of humanitarian agencies has severely hampered international efforts to tackle the country's multiple crises.

"Robert Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party have shown scant regard for the welfare of Zimbabweans," said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director for Human Rights Watch, "It is way past time for the African Union to act to help end their massive suffering."

The Global Political Agreement signed by ZANU-PF and the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), the opposition movement that won the country's parliamentary elections, has all but collapsed and has not led to a credible government of national unity or ended ZANU-PF's widespread abuses. ZANU-PF has repeatedly breached the terms of the agreement that committed the two parties to demonstrate respect for democratic values and human rights. ZANU-PF's violations of basic human rights and various governmental policies have worsened the country's humanitarian crisis.

"Crisis without Limits" is based on research conducted by Human Rights Watch in six of Zimbabwe's 10 provinces from November 16 to 30, 2008. In-depth interviews were conducted with victims of human rights violations as well as representatives of local and international nongovernmental organizations and humanitarian agencies, United Nations officials, MDC members, officials from the Ministry of Agriculture and the Grain and Marketing Board, lawyers, health experts, economists, and diplomats.

Human Rights Watch research identifies the causes of the food shortage, the cholera outbreak, and the collapse in Zimbabwe's health system. Repressive government and extensive corruption have led directly to an interlinked economic collapse, humanitarian crisis, and growing public desperation.

The report also documents how ZANU-PF continues to use state institutions such as the police and the justice system to violate the civil and political rights of MDC members and supporters, civil society activists, and human rights defenders. The police continue to use violence to break up peaceful protests, and routinely persecute MDC activists.

Human Rights Watch expressed concern about the lack of progress in mediation efforts by the Southern African Development Community (SADC). Ongoing human rights abuses have not ceased and those responsible have not been held to account.

Human Rights Watch called on the African Union to insert itself formally into the mediation process and set basic principles, specific human rights benchmarks, and timelines for resolving the crisis. Among the steps it should take are to condemn and call for an end to ongoing abuses by the ZANU-PF authorities, including an end to politically motivated violence, enforced disappearances, torture, and the release of MDC members and human rights activists who are being arbitrarily detained. Human Rights Watch urged the AU to suspend Zimbabwe from the organization if - within a specific time frame - it does not meet specific human rights and good governance benchmarks.

Food Shortages

Human Rights Watch research found that the Zimbabwean government bears primary responsibility for the severe food shortages in the country. State-sanctioned political violence led to the destruction of food granaries serving thousands of Zimbabweans who were forcibly displaced by ZANU-PF supporters, "war veterans," and soldiers and left them dependent on food aid. Official interference in the operations of humanitarian agencies that distribute food aid worsened the crisis.

Endemic corruption within state-run agricultural institutions such as the Grain and Marketing Board and by ZANU-PF's political elite has also led to severe shortages of seed and other farming supplies such as fertilizer. Many of the government's agricultural policies have benefitted the pro-ZANU-PF political elite. The Zimbabwean authorities have diverted state-subsidized maize, seed, fuel, and cheap tractors meant for local farmers to local ZANU-PF officials and governors, who have then sold them on the black market at high prices unaffordable for most Zimbabweans. And the government has done little to address the corrupt practices that have affected the food supply.

Health Crisis - Cholera

The Zimbabwean authorities have been aware of the potential for a major cholera outbreak for nearly a year. In December 2007, 459 cases of cholera were reported in two high-density suburbs of the capital, Harare, and 11 people died from cholera and more than 300 were hospitalized in Bulawayo. Despite repeated calls to address the epidemic and to ensure that municipal water sources were properly treated, the government did not respond adequately.

While the capacity to respond to the cholera outbreak may have been undermined by a lack of medical and financial resources, health officials informed Human Rights Watch that the Zimbabwean government initially refused to acknowledge the extent of the cholera crisis and the urgent need to respond. Despite an alarming increase in cholera deaths and infections, the government did not immediately appeal for international help and initially refused to declare the outbreak an emergency.

Zimbabwe's failing health system, in which ordinary Zimbabweans are no longer able to get basic health care, has aggravated the cholera epidemic. Many district hospitals and municipal clinics in Zimbabwe are either closed or operating at minimum capacity. Dilapidated infrastructure, equipment failures, shortages of drugs, and a "brain drain" of medical professionals have all contributed to the collapse of the health system.

"The Zimbabwean government is responsible for the humanitarian crisis and the failure to protect Zimbabweans from its consequences," said Gagnon, "The government has violated the basic rights of Zimbabweans to food, health, and clean water."

Since the end of October, ZANU-PF has used the police and other state agencies to arbitrarily arrest and "disappear" more than 40 MDC members and human rights activists. Thirty-two MDC members and human rights activists have been detained by the Zimbabwe authorities on various charges of attempting to overthrow the government - charges that Human Rights Watch believes are politically motivated. Most of the activists who have been charged say they were tortured by state security agents during their detention. The authorities are refusing to disclose the whereabouts of 11 other MDC members.

Regional leaders have repeatedly ignored the violations of human rights inflicted on Zimbabweans by Mugabe's government and have not taken serious steps to help their suffering, Human Rights Watch said. SADC leaders have also failed to take any measures that would promote genuine democratic transition. At the same time, the combination of political instability, the cholera outbreak, and severe food problems have driven thousands of Zimbabweans into neighboring countries. The influx has also taken cholera across Zimbabwe's border to neighboring countries, including Botswana, Mozambique, and Zambia.

"The urgent humanitarian needs of Zimbabweans are a direct consequence of ZANU-PF's abusive rule," said Gagnon. "The AU can only restore the security and well-being of people in the region by openly acknowledging the scale of the crisis, putting human rights at the top of the agenda, and holding abusers to account."

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.

Region / Country