JOHANNESBURG, 22 July (IRIN) - Despite a UN report condemning the Zimbabwean government's programme of forced evictions that has affected 700,000 people, Local Government and Housing Minister Ignatius Chombo has defended the operation.
Chombo, a key proponent of Operation Murambatsvina ('Clean Out Garbage'), told IRIN that the people evicted from their homes were in illegal settlements, "and I don't think the UN can sanction illegality".
The report by UN-HABITAT Executive Director Anna Tibaijuka called on the government to stop the demolitions of homes and markets, pay reparations to those who had lost housing and livelihoods and punish those who, "with indifference to human suffering" carried out the evictions, according to the UN news service.
"The government of Zimbabwe should set a good example and adhere to the rule of law before it can credibly ask its citizens to do the same. Operation Restore Order breached both national and international human rights law provisions guiding evictions, thereby precipitating a humanitarian crisis," Tibaijuka said in her report to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
Annan called the report "profoundly distressing", saying the evictions had done "a catastrophic injustice to as many as 700,000 of Zimbabwe's poorest citizens, through indiscriminate actions, carried out with disquieting indifference to human suffering".
The hard-hitting report said that as many as 2.4 million people have been affected to varying degrees by an operation conducted by the police and army "at a time of persistent budget deficits, triple-digit inflation, critical food and fuel shortages and chronic shortages of foreign currency".
It added: "It was implemented in a highly polarised political climate characterised by mistrust, fear and a lack of dialogue between government and local authorities, and between the former and civil society."
"Hundreds of thousands of women, men and children were made homeless, without access to food, water and sanitation, or health care. Education for thousands of school age children has been disrupted," the report said.
"Many of the sick, including those with HIV and AIDS, no longer have access to care. The vast majority of those directly and indirectly affected are the poor and disadvantaged segments of the population. They are, today, deeper in poverty, deprivation and destitution, and have been rendered more vulnerable."
It noted: "The humanitarian consequences of Operation Restore Order are enormous. It will take several years before the people and society as a whole can recover. There is an immediate need for the government of Zimbabwe to recognise the virtual state of emergency that has resulted, and to allow unhindered access by the international and humanitarian community to assist those that have been affected."
Chombo sidestepped the criticism and focused on the government's new corrective programme Operation Garikai/Hlalani Kuhle ('Stay well') to develop housing. "Our people are much happier because the government is giving them land, they are getting stands, and are getting government assistance."
While 10,000 plots have been earmarked on one site outside the capital, Harare, and others are being developed, critics have questioned whether the cash-strapped government has the money to pay for the US $300 million programme, and why Operation Murambatsvina was launched before alternative accommodation was available for those displaced.
After a two-week fact-finding visit this month, Tibaijuka said the operation was based on colonial-era Rhodesian law and policy that had been "a tool of segregation and social exclusion", and called on President Robert Mugabe to bring national laws into line with the realities of the country's poor and international law.
She noted that Operation Garikai/Hlalani Kuhle was beyond the capacity of the government to implement, and appealed to the international community to mobilise immediate aid to avert further suffering.
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