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Note: This document is from the archive of the Africa Policy E-Journal, published by the Africa Policy Information Center (APIC) from 1995 to 2001 and by Africa Action from 2001 to 2003. APIC was merged into Africa Action in 2001. Please note that many outdated links in this archived document may not work.

Zimbabwe: Human Rights Watch Report

Africa Policy E-Journal
June 10, 2003 (030610)

Zimbabwe: Human Rights Watch Report
(Reposted from sources cited below)

This posting contains a press release and brief excerpts from the most recent Human Rights Watch report on the escalating crisis and deteriorating human rights situation in Zimbabwe. Another Ejournal posting sent out today contains an open letter to President Robert Mugabe from progressive African American leaders released by Africa Action and TransAfrica Forum on June 3, and a pastoral appeal from the All Africa Conference of Churches released on June 6.

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Human Rights Watch
Press Release

Rights Conditions Decline in Zimbabwe

(New York, June 9, 2003) - Human rights conditions have deteriorated markedly in Zimbabwe over the last few months, Human Rights Watch said in a new briefing paper published today.

The briefing paper, "Under a Shadow: Civil and Political Rights in Zimbabwe," details the government's policy of repression and the harassment of opposition party members by state institutions and supporters of the ruling party. The direct involvement of ranking government officials and state security forces marks a new and worrisome trend in Zimbabwe's ongoing political crisis.

"Not only have the army and police personnel failed to protect people from human rights abuses, but they are now carrying out abuses themselves," said Peter Takirambudde, executive director of the Africa Division at Human Rights Watch. "In addition, recent legislation has drastically curtailed citizens' rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association."

Zimbabwe's main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), led a workplace stayaway from June 2-6 to protest declining economic and political conditions and force the resignation of President Mugabe. Public demonstrations and a protest march, which are illegal under the 2002 Public Order and Security Act, were dismantled by state security forces in Harare.

On March 18 and 19, a similar general strike resulted in the arrest of more than 400 citizens and a severe government backlash against political activity. The MDC was prevented from undertaking normal campaign activities in the run-up to two parliamentary by-elections, and party activists were harassed, detained and beaten.

The political violence prevalent in rural areas since 2000 has now become common in urban centers, and non-political actors such as civic organizations and church leaders are increasingly targeted. The majority of the violence in recent months has been committed by state security forces and youth militias.

"Systematic arbitrary arrests and other abuses of dissidents' human rights violates Zimbabwe's obligations under international law," said Takirambudde. "The government must end the culture of impunity before human rights conditions decline further."

Human Rights Watch called on the government of Zimbabwe to reestablish the rule of law, disband youth militia, withdraw military personnel from residential areas, and revise legislation that are contrary to international human rights law. All sides are urged to promote a climate of tolerance and mutual respect for differing political opinions.

The briefing paper can be found online at

To read more on human rights in Zimbabwe, please see:

Under a Shadow: Civil and Political Rights in Zimbabwe

A Human Rights Watch Briefing Paper

June 6, 2003

Contents (sections marked with * not included below; available in full-text on Human Rights website)

Political Violence*
Targeted Attacks by State Security Forces*
Violations by Youth Militia*
The Closure of Organizational Space*
Legal Restrictions on Rights to Assembly and Speech* The Arbitrary Enforcement of Legal Provisions*
Widening the Spectrum of Targets*
Civil Society Organizations*
Churches and the National Pastors Conference*
Zimbabwe's Obligations Under International Law* Conclusions
To the Government of Zimbabwe:
To the Opposition Party:
To the International Community:


On March 18 and 19, 2003, Zimbabwe's main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) requested that its supporters stay away from their workplaces in protest against declining economic and political conditions in the country. It was the first time that the MDC had called for political action since the ruling party's victory in the March 2002 presidential elections, which were marred by widespread irregularities and incidents of violence. The independent press and the opposition party described the stayaway as a success, reporting fairly credible national observation rates of over 60%. Yet it also triggered a severe government backlash against political activity in the country.

State security forces arrested over 400 activists and other citizens, and many more were violently attacked both by security forces and by ruling party militia. The government deployed large numbers of military personnel to low-income suburbs of Harare and other urban areas. Further, in the run-up to two parliamentary by-elections held on March 29 and 30, the MDC was prevented from undertaking normal campaign activities, and known party activists were detained, beaten and harassed. The reaction of the government and the security forces during these weeks illustrated a clear and systematic repression of MDC activists, which amounted to a criminalization of political affiliation.

In addition to this direct repression of political activity, legislation passed prior to the presidential elections has resulted in a progressive closure of political space over the past year. Public demonstrations and protests are effectively illegal under the 2002 Public Order and Security Act (POSA), which curtails citizens' rights to freedom of expression. Serious restrictions on citizens' rights to assembly and association have made it difficult for elected representatives to regularly meet with their constituents - meetings are either declared illegal or are otherwise disrupted. In addition, police and youth militia have dispersed public meetings that received police clearance, private organizational meetings, and meetings of organizations that are exempt from POSA. Staff of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) say that their operations have been increasingly constrained by POSA and other legal restrictions since the 2002 presidential elections.

This report, based on over three weeks of research by Human Rights Watch, finds that Zimbabwe has suffered a serious breakdown in law and order, resulting in major violations of human rights. This environment has been created largely by actions of the ranking government officials and state security forces. State-sponsored violence and repression have expanded their scope both geographically and in terms of targets over the past year. The political violence endemic in the rural areas since 2000 has now become common in urban centers, and those targeted now include non-political actors, including civic organizations and church leaders.


The deteriorating human rights situation in Zimbabwe is the continuation of a consistent pattern of human rights abuses over the past three years. These abuses began shortly before the parliamentary elections of June 2000, and they were linked both to the rising popularity of the MDC and the February 2000 defeat of the government's proposed new constitution in a referendum. Spontaneous as well as state-sponsored invasions of white-owned commercial farms occurred throughout 2000,1 and the government failed to take firm action against the violence and lawlessness that accompanied these invasions. Police often refused to take action or even document reports of human rights violations on occupied farms.2 Indeed, supporters of the government and of the government's fast track land redistribution were vested with a considerable degree of impunity, an impunity that the Presidential political amnesty of October 2000 actually made official.3

The government's actions during this period allowed the war veterans who had led the occupations of commercial farms to carve out their own zones of authority. War veterans have no official status as government officials and regularly ignore police and court directives. However, they have become increasingly involved in activities as disparate as policing, land distribution, and training of youths in the national youth service. Furthermore, the government has allowed the graduates of these training programs to monitor price controls and perform other informal policing operations, thereby creating another potential challenge to the authority of official state security forces. Clear lines of authority and jurisdiction have also been eroded by a gradual militarization of normal policing activities. The military has become increasingly involved in food distribution, electoral management, and other activities that would naturally fall under the mandate of the Zimbabwe Republic Police. The increasing disorder in this sector has created a permissive environment for continued violations of personal security and basic rights, even in the event of a substantive change in government policy. That is, even if the ruling party commits itself to a restoration of peace and order in Zimbabwe, its ability to ensure the compliance of its supporting structures is uncertain.

The severity of human rights abuses has increased, and the direct involvement of formal state institutions in such abuses marks a new and dangerous development in Zimbabwe's ongoing political crisis. Previously, war veterans, youth militia, and ruling party activists had been responsible for most of the violence and intimidation of opposition party supporters. Interviews in March and April of this year established that violent human rights violations are being carried out by uniformed army and police personnel. Further, the government has taken no clear action to halt the rising incidence of torture and mistreatment of suspects while in the custody of police or intelligence services. As in the past, repression of political activity and expression of dissent have been particularly noticeable prior to election periods. However, as economic and political conditions deteriorate, the government seems increasingly willing to directly involve itself in human rights abuses.

The government has become more vulnerable as a result of the deterioration of economic conditions in Zimbabwe - a situation that has been compounded by the lack of corn, gasoline and other basic commodities. The economy contracted by an estimated 12% percent during 2002.4 Minimum wages set by government are less than a third of the amount needed by a family of six to meet basic needs. The Consumer Council of Zimbabwe estimates that the amount needed by a low-income family of six to purchase a basic expenditure "basket" was Z$88,578 in February 2003 (US$104 at the official rate, US$68 at the parallel rate)5; however, the government minimum wage in March for an unskilled or semi-skilled worker in the formal sector was approximately Z$23,000 a month (US$27 or $18 in March). 6 Inflation has surpassed 220% per annum, and it is estimated that unemployment exceeds 70% of the workforce.



By failing to act strongly against the perpetrators of violence, by enlisting state institutions to beat and harass those perceived to be critical of government, by using rhetoric that relies on metaphors of war and terrorism, the Zimbabwean government has created a culture of impunity, intolerance, and injustice. The dismantling of this culture is necessary before Zimbabwe can begin political and economic recovery. The government of Zimbabwe is directly responsible for only some of the human rights violations in the country. Even where there are open questions about the degree of control exercised over war veterans and youth militia, it still remains responsible for their actions. There are also credible reports of violence and intimidation by MDC activists and youth. However, as one ruling party MP admitted, "when you ask who has the capacity to stop [the violence], if it had the will, the answer is government."76

Due to economic conditions and the increasing levels of violence, Zimbabwe is currently facing a particularly volatile political situation. The continuation of current levels of polarization will impede the restoration of basic rights and security. Indeed, the evidence presented above suggests a potential for continued erosion, perhaps at an accelerated pace, of human rights conditions within the country. It is imperative the Zimbabwean government to take credible measures to reduce tension within the country and to repair the reputation of state institutions. From this standpoint, recent efforts by regional actors to revive dialogue between government and opposition are a positive step toward normalization of politics inside the country. However, in order for such efforts to result in substantive improvement in human rights conditions in Zimbabwe, the Zimbabwean government must undo the damage wrought by persistent patterns of human rights abuse and the impunity that has accompanied them. This will require greater tolerance of political pluralism, greater transparency and accountability in government policy-making, and the arrest and trial of those responsible for gross human rights violations.


To the Government of Zimbabwe:

  • Reestablish the rule of law by making law and order operations, including the interrogation of suspects, the sole domain of the Zimbabwe Republic Police. Disband the youth militia and shut down training bases established under the Zimbabwe National Youth Training Program. Withdraw military personnel from residential neighborhoods, especially those with upcoming elections, and limit military presence in urban centers. Arrest and prosecute those responsible for gross human rights violations.
  • Reaffirm the government's commitment to due process and equal treatment under the law. Ensure that the police cease the use of detention without charges, torture, and selective enforcement. Investigate citizens' claims of torture by the Central Intelligence Organization (CIO).
  • Encourage a climate of tolerance and mutual respect for differing political opinions. Cease inflammatory rhetoric, including tacit approval of violence, in the public press, at public rallies and state events. Allow elected representatives to meet with constituents without restriction, and ensure the safety and freedom of the opposition party to peacefully campaign prior to elections.
  • Ensure the revision of existing legislation that constrains Zimbabwean citizens' ability to exercise basic rights, in accordance with international standards. In particular, repeal those sections of POSA that criminalize public meetings of a political nature and criticism of office-holders and government actions.

To the Opposition Party:

  • Reaffirm the party's commitment to non-violence and tolerance. Investigate claims of political violence, coerced participation, and threats by MDC activists during the March 18-19 stayaway. Direct all party members to avoid violence, retaliatory action, or actions intended to intimidate or force cooperation.
  • Encourage a climate of tolerance and mutual respect for differing political opinions. Cease the use of inflammatory rhetoric at public rallies and campaign meetings.

To the International Community:

  • Continue to insist upon the immediate reintroduction of the rule of law and the cessation of the use of arbitrary detention as well as beatings and other forms of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment and targeting of opposition and civil society activists.
  • Urge the Zimbabwean government to revoke those elements of domestic law that contradict or are applied contrary to international law and infringe the basic rights of Zimbabwean citizens. Urge all actors to respect the human rights of all parties and to abjure the use of violence and intimidation.
  • Support ongoing efforts by regional actors to facilitate a quick resolution of Zimbabwe's political and human rights impasse.

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Date distributed (ymd): 030610
Region: Southern Africa
Issue Areas: +political/rights+ +economy/development+ +security/peace+

The Africa Action E-Journal is a free information service provided by Africa Action, including both original commentary and reposted documents. Africa Action provides this information and analysis in order to promote U.S. and international policies toward Africa that advance economic, political and social justice and the full spectrum of human rights.

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