On April 18, as Zimbabweans look back on 40 years of independence from British colonial rule, it is a fitting time to reflect on the country’s human rights record. Born a few months before independence, I have no personal experience of the liberation struggle. But my father often regaled me with colorful accounts of the fight for justice, equality and non-discrimination. From those accounts and my experience as a lawyer and human rights advocate, it seems that Zimbabwe has fared poorly in its duty to respect and ensure basic rights and freedoms.
For the first 37 years of independence, until November 2017, Zimbabwe was under the iron-fist rule of one man, the late President Robert Gabriel Mugabe. For some, Mugabe remains a hero, for championing the liberation struggle against colonial rule, empowerment of the landless poor, and his investment in education in the early years of his rule.
But others remember Mugabe’s rule for widespread human rights violations, near-total impunity for those responsible, and destruction of the country’s economy. Even as Mugabe’s government promoted universal access to education and health, and ensured the country’s food security in the early 1980s, it used manipulation and repression to hold on to power. From the time the country became independent, the ruling ZANU-PF party has used its supporters, as well as the army and the police, to commit acts of violence against opponents and use state institutions for political ends.
The first post-independence overt military involvement in serious abuses in Zimbabwe was between 1982 and 1987, when the Mugabe government deployed a section of the army, the Fifth Brigade ostensibly to quell dissident disturbances in the Midlands and Matabeleland provinces. This unit, trained by North Korean instructors, was code named “Gukurahundi,”– the rain that washes away the chaff.
It appears ZANU-PF used the pretext of the disturbances to unleash violence on the supporters of the Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU) to ensure the dominance of ZANU-PF and to render ZAPU irrelevant. According to the Catholic Commission on Justice and Peace, the Fifth Brigade carried out widespread atrocities such as torture and extrajudicial executions of more than 3,000 people. The ZAPU leader, Joshua Nkomo, and human rights groups put the figure at 20,000.
Mugabe in 1983 set up the Chihambakwe Commission of Inquiry into the Gukurahundi atrocities. Its damning findings were leaked but never officially made public and its recommendations on the security sector were never carried out. In 1988 the ZANU-PF government issued Clemency Order Number 1, granting amnesty to all those involved in human rights violations between 1982 and 1987, benefiting mainly the army and the state security agency, the Central Intelligence Organization (CIO), which at the time of the atrocities was overseen by the current president, Emmerson Mnangagwa.
Successive election periods were characterized by impunity for widespread political violence mainly by ZANU-PF, its allies, and government agencies, including sections of the army and the CIO. In 1993, Mugabe granted amnesty to two state agents convicted of attempted murder of Patrick Kombayi an opposition candidate for the 1990 elections. In 1995 Mugabe again issued an amnesty for all politically motivated crimes and human rights abuses, including beatings, arson, kidnapping and torture. On October 6, 2000, following widespread political violence during parliamentary elections, Mugabe pardoned those responsible for politically motivated crimes committed during the January-July 2000 campaign period.
In the lead-up to the June 2008 presidential runoff elections, elements in the security forces and ZANU-PF supporters orchestrated widespread political violence throughout the country against the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) led by the late Morgan Tsvangirai. This violence resulted in the killings of hundreds of perceived MDC activists and supporters and the beating, torture, and forced displacement of thousands more.
In 2000, with support from the government, ZANU-PF and its allies carried out violent invasions of white-owned farms in which several farmers and farm workers were killed. In 2005 the government carried out an unprecedented campaign of forced evictions in urban areas, “Operation Murambatsvina” -- which means “clear the filth” in Shona, causing a massive internal displacement crisis in which an estimated 700,000 people lost their shelter, livelihood or both. In 2007 incidents of police violence and intimidation increased significantly, culminating in the arrest and beating of more than 50 opposition activists in police custody. As with previous state-sponsored political violence, the authorities failed to hold accountable those responsible, entrenching impunity within the security forces.
In addition to the close political alliance between the leadership of ZANU-PF and the security forces, another driving force for political interference and human rights abuses by security forces appears to have been the need to protect ill-gotten wealth and other vested economic interests. This has included control of revenue from Marange diamond fields, where sections of the army directly owned and operated mining companies.
Since taking over after Mugabe was forced out of power in November 2017, President Mnangagwa has repeatedly voiced his commitments to human rights reforms. But his administration remains highly intolerant of basic rights, peaceful dissent, and free expression. The security forces have continued to commit serious and intensified violations, including violent attacks, abductions, torture, and other abuses against the opposition and civil society activists.
The Motlanthe Commission of Inquiry, set up by President Mnangagwa following the post-election violence of August 1, 2018, found that 6 people died and 35 others were injured as a result of actions by the state security forces. Some commission recommendations, which have yet to be carried out, include ensuring that those responsible for the violence are held accountable and that a special committee is established to compensate families of those who were killed and who lost property.
Human Rights Watch investigations found that state security forces used excessive and lethal force to crush nationwide protests in January 2019. During and after the protests, the forces fired live ammunition that killed 17 people, and at least 17 women were raped. No security force personnel have been arrested or prosecuted for these abuses.
Even outside of politics, Zimbabweans have not fared much better in terms of their rights. For decades, Zimbabwe has grappled with a shortage of skilled professionals and healthcare staff and an eroded infrastructure with ill-equipped hospitals and a lack of essential medicines and commodities. Violations of the right to food, through acute food shortages, persist. According to the United Nations, 7.7 million people (60 percent of the population) are food insecure. Around 5.5 million of these people live in rural areas and 2.2 million in urban areas.
Last September, the Harare City Council shut down its main water treatment plant, known as Morton Jaffray, due to shortages of imported water treatment chemicals and low water levels at Lake Chivero, southwest of the city. This exposed millions of Harare residents to the risk of water-borne diseases like cholera, which have ravaged the city in the past. In 2008, a cholera outbreak in Harare claimed more than 4,200 lives. The conditions that contributed to the spread of cholera during the latest outbreak in September 2018, and another outbreak a decade earlier, still exist.
The Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission, chaired by Dr. Elasto Mugwadi, seems to be a silver lining in the dark cloud of rights abuses in the country. The commission, with constitutional responsibilities to ensure the promotion and protection of human rights in Zimbabwe, has boldly carried out extensive human rights investigations and has frequently spoken out against abuses by state agents. The commission investigated the 2019 public protests against the economic collapse and their aftermath and concluded in a report published in September that armed and uniformed members of the Zimbabwe National Army and the Zimbabwe Republic Police systematically tortured suspected protesters.
Zimbabwe needs more state institutions that deliver justice. The judiciary and the prosecution authority need to be independent, professional, and non-partisan to ensure that human rights are protected and promoted.
Zimbabwe authorities need to reform the security forces, completely end their involvement in partisan politics, and ensure that they act professionally, and in a rights-respecting manner. For the serious human rights abuses since independence – including arbitrary arrests, torture, murder, and rape -- the government should order prompt investigations. It should carry out recommendations stemming from these investigations and by commissions established to protect rights.
This includes prosecuting implicated members of security forces in accordance with national law and international standards. Given the scale of human rights abuses in which security forces are implicated, the establishment of an independent complaint system under the 2013 constitution, to receive and investigate complaints from members of the public, is long overdue.
Reform should include human rights training and education, with international assistance, for members of the security forces and other state agencies. All training should be consistent with international human rights standards, such as the United Nations Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials and the Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials.
With the necessary political will, it is possible for the Zimbabwe government to build on its existing constitutional human rights framework, to enable millions of Zimbabweans to realize one of the main objectives of the struggle for independence, the enjoyment of fundamental human rights and freedoms.