Zimbabwe: The toll of impunity


AI Index: AFR 46/034/2002
I Introduction

Amnesty International defines impunity as the failure to bring to justice those who commit serious violations of human rights. By ignoring the violation, the state compounds it. The absence of justice and redress prolongs and intensifies the pain felt by the relatives of those who are killed, or who "disappear". Moreover, this failure by the state gives a green light to the perpetrators to continue.

Impunity begins when state authorities feel that they cannot achieve their political goals through legal means or with the support of the people. Impunity implies the distortion of the rule of law. It is justice being evaded by those for whom the law is an obstacle, as well as violations committed to attack or punish those who should be protected by the law. When a government adopts a policy of impunity, other measures may follow: the rights to freedom of information and assembly are suppressed, the protective role of the police and security forces is eroded and the independence of the judiciary is undermined. All this is done in order to form a shield under which impunity for further human rights violations can flourish without scrutiny.

Impunity has become the central problem in Zimbabwe, where state security forces - police officers, army officers or agents of the Central Intelligence Organization (CIO) - commit widespread human rights violations without being brought to justice. The Zimbabwean government has also organized, coordinated or otherwise encouraged "militias" to carry out threats, assaults, abductions, torture and killings against its perceived political enemies. As a disguised arm of the state, these informal "militias" are composed of supporters of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union - Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party, members of the Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans Association (ZNLWVA) and unemployed rural youths, sometimes press-ganged into their activities. Police have often accompanied these "militias" in committing their crimes. And after December 2001, members of an official national youth service trained as a paramilitary force joined the informal "militias" in committing human rights violations across the country. Amnesty International uses the term "militia" to refer to all such groups.

A culture of impunity has been reinforced in Zimbabwe for the "militias", state agents and other supporters of the ruling party who carry out politically motivated violations. This report's purpose is to describe, using a series of case studies, how impunity has been promoted by the government in Zimbabwe and to propose recommendations on how to break that impunity for perpetrators of human rights violations.

Historical impunity

In Zimbabwe, the growth of impunity has been a long-term phenomenon that extends back into the days of the nationalist armed struggle in the 1970s, when Southern Rhodesian forces committed atrocities against the civilian population in their pursuit of African nationalist armed groups. Amnesty International documented many violations by forces of the white minority regime, and campaigned for the fair trial or release of Robert Mugabe, now the President of Zimbabwe, as well as many former and current senior politicians such as Joshua Nkomo, Eddison Zvobgo and Simon Muzenda1. Then, as in the current situation, youth supporters of the armed opposition carried out assaults, torture and killings of rural people in the name of the liberation movement.

After a negotiated peace settlement led to independence in 1980, perpetrators of human rights abuses from both sides of the war were allowed to go unpunished in the name of reconciliation. After independence, there was no public discussion of holding accountable any of the nationalist leaders, combatants or youth followers for hundreds of arbitrary killings, torture or "disappearances" of civilians. Similarly, senior Rhodesian officials of the CIO, and other highranking military and police commanders who may have participated in widespread human rights violations, remained on duty in active service in the newly created nation of Zimbabwe.

Starting in the early 1980s, the purported threat of "dissident" ex-guerilla fighters in the Matabeleland and Midlands provinces led to a counter-insurgency war in which several thousands of civilians were killed or "disappeared".2 Some estimates put the number of deaths at up to 10,000 civilians.Thousands were arbitrarily detained, beaten and often tortured in official operations by the Zimbabwe National Army. Some atrocities committed by the army's Fifth Brigade were disguised as "dissident attacks". Most of the perpetrators of other mass killings and "disappearances" can never conclusively be identified. A commission of inquiry was set up by the the events in Matabeleland and Midlands. However, the report has never been made public. In 1999 human rights groups initiated court action to compel the government to release the report; however, the government claimed that the report was missing and could not be located.

The pattern of impunity

This pattern of impunity in Zimbabwe has consisted of five elements:

  • preventing those responsible for human rights violations from being brought to justice through the granting of presidential amnesties, clemencies and indemnities;
  • the government has taken steps to obscure or prevent the identification of the state's agents in perpetrating human rights violations;
  • human rights defenders and the independent media are prevented from investigating and publishing accounts of human rights violations;
  • investigation and prosecution of state perpetrators has been blocked by the state's political manipulation of the police; and
  • the undermining of the whole judicial system, not simply by encouraging the police to serve the political dictates of the government rather than the law, but also by eroding the independence of the judiciary and circumventing its effectiveness.

This report concentrates on human rights violations committed during the parliamentary elections in 2000, through the by-elections held in certain constituencies in 2001 after some of those seats fell vacant, to the presidential elections held in March 2002. In each of these election periods, the impunity of the past led to further violations being unleashed on the people of Zimbabwe. In this report Amnesty International examines the progression of several cases to illustrate how justice has been thwarted to ensure impunity for perpetrators of political killings and acts of torture.


1 In the 1970s, Eddison Zvobgo was the former deputy Secretary-General of ZANU and became the Minister of Local Government and Housing at independence. Simon Muzenda was the Vice-President of ZANU at that time, and is currently Vice-President of the government. Both men remain senior members of the party. Joshua Nkomo, the President of the Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU) party, later became the second Vice-President after the two political parties merged in 1987.

2 Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Zimbabwe, Legal Resources Foundation, "Breaking the Silence - Building True Peace: A Report on the Disturbances in Matabeleland and the Midlands 1980 - 1988".