The Zimbabwean human rights crisis: a collaborative approach to international advocacy.

Author:Davidson, Lorna

Over the past several years, a serious human rights crisis has developed in Zimbabwe, where President Robert Mugabe employs repressive measures to cling to power. Civil society and human rights groups in Zimbabwe are among those who have come under attack by the government, and they face an extremely difficult challenge in bringing about positive change in the country. This article describes the development of the current crisis in Zimbabwe, focusing on the problems faced by local activists and organizations that seek to promote greater respect for human rights. It further discusses one recent initiative launched by the U.S.-based organization Human Rights First, which organized a consultative meeting of regional civil society groups in August 2003. The article addresses the role that can and should be played by international civil society organizations, which must be sensitive to the contextual dynamics particular to the Zimbabwean crisis and to the region. If they are to be in any way effective, such organizations must act in support of local actors and stronger regional networks.


    A major human rights and humanitarian crisis has been developing in Zimbabwe for the past several years and has reached a critical juncture. Relative to other trouble-spots in Africa, the nature and dimensions of the crisis in Zimbabwe are simple. There are no rebel forces fighting for control of resources or territory, no secessionist movements seeking to break away, no religious conflicts, and no collapse of state institutions. Rather, Zimbabwe is a classic case of an authoritarian government clinging to power and using whatever methods it considers necessary to ensure its continued survival.

    Over the past five decades, a sophisticated language and legal structure have developed to deal precisely with governments abusing their people and invoking the protection of state sovereignty to prevent external criticism or interference. The language of human rights, and the raft of national, regional and international human rights standards that have been adopted as law, provide a framework for addressing such abuses of power and seeking to prevent their repetition.

    Yet despite the arsenal of laws, courts, monitoring mechanisms, regional and international agreements, and institutions wielding a range of carrots and sticks, nothing has yet moved the Zimbabwean government to end the violence and repression that it is inflicting upon its people. When it is accused of violating basic rights, it simply dismisses such allegations as part of a western neo-colonial conspiracy designed to destabilize the government and reassert white (British) control. The political opposition is attacked by the government as a stooge of the West and disgruntled white farmers, and civil society groups are branded as agents of the opposition and western organizations. Incredible as these claims appear to the population of Zimbabwe and to external analysts monitoring the crisis, they have been remarkably effective in muddying the waters and preventing condemnation and sanctions at a regional level.

    The challenge faced by human rights and civil society groups, both within Zimbabwe and externally, is therefore a difficult one, despite the seeming simplicity of the crisis itself. This article sets out that challenge, describing both the environment within Zimbabwe and the problems faced by local activists and organizations seeking to promote greater respect for human rights. Describing in particular one recent initiative launched by the U.S.-based organization Human Rights First, it further addresses the role that can and should be played by international civil society organizations, which must be sensitive to the contextual dynamics particular to the Zimbabwean crisis and to the region. If they are to be in any way effective, such organizations must act in support of local actors and stronger regional networks.


    Beginning in the early 1960s, a bitter independence struggle was fought in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) by the black majority population, who had been deprived of their land and subjugated by European settlers since the late nineteenth century. After the Unilateral Declaration of Independence of 1965, by which the white minority regime in Rhodesia sought to break from Britain and ensure their own continuance in power, even more harsh measures were adopted and a system of racial segregation was rigorously implemented. Open armed conflict began in 1972, between the Rhodesian forces and Zimbabwean liberation groups, and over the course of the next seven years 30,000 to 80,000 people were killed as acts of violence and brutality became widespread throughout the country. (1)

    Following the negotiation of an end to the conflict and the holding of elections, Robert Mugabe and his Zanu-PF party came to power in 1980. (2) Rather than the backlash against the whites that many had feared, Mugabe preached reconciliation between the white and black populations. (3) The white commercial farmers, numbering only around 6000 but owning two thirds of the most productive land in the country, were reassured by this rhetoric and by the terms that had been written into the new constitution, protecting their right to hold on to their land for at least ten years. While the inequality of land ownership remained, in the post-independence honeymoon period, prospects for Zimbabwe's future looked extremely promising; its economy was strong, its population highly educated, and its infrastructure well developed.

    One part of Zimbabwe infrastructure that was retained and effectively used by its new government was the state security machinery. The army, police and intelligence forces had broad powers under emergency regulations that were re-enacted after independence. (4) Moreover, the climate of impunity for state-sponsored violence and brutality that had prevailed prior to the inception of majority rule was perpetuated through the passing of amnesty laws and the continued service of security officers who had been involved in torture, killing, and disappearances. (5)

    While the lives of most Zimbabweans undoubtedly improved with independence and the formal dismantling of racial segregation, the new Zanu-PF government soon proved as ruthless as its predecessor in quashing dissent. In 1982, a campaign was launched against the Ndebele population of the Matabeleland region in southern Zimbabwe, ostensibly to suppress armed dissidents who operated there. Massacres, rapes, torture, arbitrary detention and destruction of property were carried out by security forces over several years. (6) Local human rights groups have concluded that half of the adult residents of Matabeleland were tortured in this period. (7)

    In his determination to make Zimbabwe a one-party state, Robert Mugabe systematically destroyed or disarmed his opponents, and by 1990 he was without significant challengers. For the next decade, a period of relative calm prevailed in the country, but popular discontent with the government was on the rise and new forces for social change emerged. Academics, the student union and the labor movement became increasingly critical of corruption, the continued use of repressive legislation, and the absence of respect for basic political rights. (8) In 1997, the National Constitutional Assembly (NCA), a large coalition of human rights organizations, churches, trade unions, women's groups, and others, was formed on a platform for a new constitution containing greater rights protections. Subsequently, a new political party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), emerged out of the labor movement, led by Morgan Tsvangerai.


    The situation in Zimbabwe began to deteriorate rapidly in 2000, a year that was marked by the defeat of the government in a popular referendum on the adoption of a new constitution. Among other things, the constitution that was proposed by a government-appointed commission would have extended presidential powers. This proposal was rejected by the Zimbabwean people following an intensive "no" campaign launched by the NCA and the newly formed MDC. That same year, despite political violence and widespread manipulation of the electoral process by the ruling Zanu-PF party, the MDC succeeded in winning fifty-seven out of the one hundred and twenty popularly elected seats in parliament. Realizing that his hold over the population was rapidly diminishing and that he might not be able to cling to power for much longer, President Mugabe retaliated. He seized on land reform as an emotive issue that could be manipulated to garner popular support in Zimbabwe and that echoed favourably throughout Africa.

    There can be no question that the system of land ownership in place in Zimbabwe at independence was grossly inequitable. It has been estimated that about 6000 white commercial farmers owned 15.5 million hectares of land, while 8500 small-scale farmers owned only 1.4 million hectares, and about 700,000 households of black, communal farmers survived off 16.4 million hectares. (9) In addition, the land comprising the communal farms was generally less suitable for farming than that owned by the large-scale commercial farmers. The independence constitution negotiated with Great Britain had restricted land transfers to those made on a willing buyer-willing seller basis and paid for in sufficient amount. Thus, for ten years the land reform process had proceeded slowly, but in a relatively orderly manner. During the 1990s, there was even less progress in the transfer and settlement process. However, in 2000, immediately following the government's defeat in the constitutional referendum, a new "fast-track" program was launched and between 2000 and the end of 2002, the government had acquired an estimated eleven million hectares of land formerly owned by white commercial farmers. This acquisition was achieved by occupation by...

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