CIVICUS laments continued harassment of Zimbabwean human rights defenders

Originally published
Johannesburg. 26 March 2010. Despite the noble intentions expressed in the Global Political Agreement to promote openness and tolerance, human rights defenders in Zimbabwe continue to face persecution because of their work. CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation and its partners are deeply concerned that the September 2008 agreement signed between rival political factions as a governance road map for an "Inclusive Government" is not being implemented in good faith, to the severe detriment of civil society activity in the country.

Recent events such as the arbitrary arrest of Zimbabwe Human Rights Association (Zim Rights) Director, Okay Machisa, on 24 March for organising an "unapproved" photo exhibition, and harassment of Zimbabwe General Agricultural and Plantation Worker's Union (GAPWUZ) members for documenting the violence surrounding the "land reform" process through a film and report, attest to sustained use of coercive means by Zimbabwean security forces to silence human rights defenders. The Secretary General of GAPWUZ, Gertrude Hambira, has been forced to leave the country and go into self-imposed exile for fear of her life.

"It is not just Zim Rights and GAPWUZ which are being targeted. Over the past few months, we have been receiving from a wide range of NGO and trade union activists a steady stream of reports of harassement in subtle and direct ways by the Zimbabwean security apparatus," said Netsanet Belay, Civil Society Watch Programme Manager at CIVICUS. "Examples range from arbitrary detentions to brutal attacks on peaceful demonstrations, summons to police stations for prolonged interrogation sessions to threats of causing grave physical harm over the telephone."

The Global Political Agreement clearly recognises the importance of the freedoms of assembly and association. It underscores the imperative to ensure proper interpretation, understanding and application of the provisions of security legislation by law enforcement agencies. Nevertheless, with a view to preventing civil society from exposing rights violations, military and police leaders have made a number of recent pronouncements that the activities of civil society organisations (CSOs) are being closely monitored. Moreover, the state run media is persisting with its policy of questioning the credibility and political impartiality of CSOs. In another sign of constricting civil society space earlier this month, the health ministry made a representation before a senate thematic committee about the need to limit the independence of NGOs working on HIV/ AIDS issues through a legal statute.

The Zimbabwean government continues to prevent the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders and the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment from visiting the country. Notably, the official delegation of Zimbabwe in its submission to the High level session of the UN Human Rights Council in March 2010, once again evaded the issue of facilitating the visits of the above-mentioned independent experts to assess the situation in the country.

As attested by the National Association of Non Governmental Organisations (NANGO), the general environment for CSOs has not changed much under the Inclusive Government. "The climate of fear, suspicion and mistrust persists unabated, which is negatively affecting the constitution making and national healing processes."

CIVICUS is an international movement of civil society with members and partners in over a hundred countries. The Civil Society Watch (CSW) team of CIVICUS works to protect the freedoms of expression, association and assembly across the world. In 2009, CSW tracked threats to civil society in over 75 countries.