“The commission must have teeth to investigate and prosecute cases and must not be subjected any undue political pressure. This is a new phenomenon in Zimbabwe and therefore it must herald a new culture of human rights,” said political analyst and media expert Takura Zhangazha at the meeting organised by the Zimbabwe Human Rights Association (Zimrights).
The Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission was created following a Constitutional provision agreed to by the Zanu (PF) and the two MDC formations.
The commission is expected to investigate human rights abuses/atrocities, protect and promote human rights of citizens.
Among the key issues that came out at the meeting was the need to ensure that the commission is adequately resourced, is free from political interference and is staffed by people of integrity who do not pander to political whims.
A Zimrights official told journalists that they were worried that government had too much control on the human rights commission.
“Given the fact the commissioners were appointed by the politicians there is a great likelihood of them of them, representing those who appointed them not the people of Zimbabwe. We are likely to see more human rights abuses occurring than before,” said the official who did not want to be named.
“Also we are told that the commission ‘may’ be given power by the parliament which also makes it less powerful. This is worrying us as an organisation and we want the authorities to urgently address this loophole before it is too late.
Professor Reg Austin a Lawyer, former Professor and Dean of the Faculty of Law at the University of Zimbabwe and former head of Commonwealth Secretariat’s Constitutional and Legal Affairs Division is the commission chair while his deputy is Dr Ellen Sithole.
Zhangazha said it was disturbing to note that the functions of the Human Rights Commission had not yet been tabled to the public whom it should serve.
“The problem with the Human Rights Commission since its inception is that it is a politically negotiated creature whose commissioners were appointed in a partisan manner even though parliament was involved and therefore it was compromised. It does no exhibit political independence from political parties involved and I see it functioning in a compromised fashion and sometimes not dealing with human rights issues,” he said.
It was recommended at the meeting that issues like the Gukurahundi atrocities, Murambatsvina and other human rights abuses committed during the colonial period should be dealt with by the Organ on National Healing and Reconciliation while the Human Rights commission should dwell on the way forward.
Leo Chamahwinya, a programme officer for Zimrights, said the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission Act should clearly explain the roles that the commission shall play and avoid vague language that will give politicians a leeway to manipulate commissioners.
“The law must clearly spell out the independence of the commission. It should also determine where its work shall start,” said Chamahwinya.
Participants at the meeting also argued that the commission must among other things safeguard the rights of gays and lesbians who have been a subject of constant harassment from state security agents.
“They are human beings like everyone. Their rights must also be safeguarded. They must not be subjected to President Robert Mugabe’s hate campaigns against them. They must be allowed to go about their business with hindrance,” said another journalist at the meeting.
A report produced by Zmrights on Community Views on the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission concluded that the people want a truly independent commission that protects their rights.
“The people of Zimbabwe’s concerns lie in whether or not the nation can establish a commission that is independent of any political influence. This owes much to the fact that the Zanu (PF) government has manipulated and violated people’s rights to serve their selfish interests. The commission should be victim driven and centred,” read the report.