Zimbabwe: Human rights defenders at risk as elections approach

Press release
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Paris, Geneva, Harare, July 27, 2018 – Ahead of Zimbabwe’s much anticipated general elections scheduled on July 30, the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders* (an FIDH-OCMT partnership) releases preliminary findings resulting from its most recent field mission conducted from July 9 to 13, 2018, in Zimbabwe, to assess the environment in which human rights defenders have been operating during the electoral campaign, in a context of increased intra-party violence and succession battles. The Observatory expresses serious concerns on the climate of fear and uncertainty which curtails national civic space and hinders the work of human rights defenders during this crucial moment for the democratic life of the country.

After 37 years of authoritarian rule, that disintegrated the country into a failed state, Zimbabweans will, for the first time, experience an election process without Robert Mugabe, who was in power from the independence of the country in 1980 until his forced resignation on November 21, 2017 through a military assisted change of government.

Since November 24, 2017, when Emmerson Mnangagwa was sworn in as President to lead the remainder of Robert Mugabe’s term before the 2018 elections, national authorities have stated their commitment to ensure that July 30 general elections will be credible, free, fair and transparent. Despite the fact that political space seems to have opened up since Robert Mugabe left power, civic space and the exercise of fundamental freedoms have remained restricted by the regime. Violently repressed under Robert Mugabe, human rights defenders and civil society actors continue operating in a hostile environment under Emmerson Mnangagwa.

The field mission documented that a number of repressive laws used under then President Mugabe, including the Public Order and Security Act (POSA) and the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA), are still used to threaten and intimidate human rights defenders, and more broadly anyone seen as opposed to ZANU-PF.

The current government is responsible for ensuring 30 July elections are held in a conducive environment providing peace, transparency and fairness for all Zimbabweans to go to polls free of fear. The protection of human rights defenders over this period must also be a priority to ensure that elections can be truly fair and participative. Acts of intimidation and harassment reported against them must immediately stop”, said Okay MACHISA, National Director of ZimRights.

Despite Robert Mugabe’s departure from power in November 2017 and Emmerson Mnangagwa’s communication strategy to reach out to the international community, old repressive practices remain very much alive. Among other issues, the field mission documented that ZANU-PF’s still exercises firm control on the State; Zimbabwe political life is characterised by inter and intra-party violence the army is often deployedfor law enforcement operations instead of the police. Currently, the deployment of military forces in rural areas is denounced by civil society as a strategy to intimidate populations.

The 30 July vote has to be the opportunity to definitely turn the page on a system that has stifled Zimbabweans for nearly 40 years, and to initiate a real democratic transition. This requires putting an end to malpractices, strengthening the rule of law and protecting human rights for all”, said Arnold TSUNGA, FIDH Vice-President.

Read Arnold Tsunga’s op-ed in the Mail and Gardian

The field mission could further observe that the Zimbabwean people have lost confidence in the electoral process. The credibility and transparency of the process have been so much damaged that there is a high risk for disputed election results. As perpetrators of past human rights violations remain in power and military staff keeps holding strategic senior positions within the government and administration, the mission delegation expressed its fear that electoral disputes may lead to violence and social unrest.

SADC, the African Union and the European Union have all sent electoral observer missions to Zimbabwe and must now accompany the country in ensuring any dispute over election results are democratically addressed, through peaceful and legal means, in accordance with SADC guidelines on Elections, the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance and international standards in this respect”, concluded Alice MOGWE, Secretary General of FIDH and Executive Director of DITSHWANELO – the Botswana Centre for Human Rights.

Following its mission, the Observatory wishes to highlight the following key issues.

Acts of harrassment against and of intimidation of kuman rights defenders must be investigated

While under Robert Mugabe dispensation human rights defenders (HRDs) faced gross violations culminating in summary executions and enforced disappearances, these abuses still persist in more subtle forms under President Mnangagwa.

Independent journalists and media practitioners have historically been consistently repressed in Zimbabwe. Since November 2017, cases of harassment and intimidation against journalists have relatively reduced, however, as the elections approach, fears have re-surfaced over threats to journalists. For instance, during a media briefing on the preparation of the elections, held by the military on July 4, 2018, the Director of Public Relations of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces, Colonel Overson Mugwisi, singled out HRDS like Siphosami Malunga, human rights lawyer based in South Africa, and journalists such as Richard Chidza, Snodia Mawupeni and Blessing Mashaya for “bad and mischievous reporting”[1][2].

Draconian laws used to suppress human rights defenders must be repealed

After the fall of Mugabe, several repressive laws were not repealed nor amended. Therefore, a number of old laws – some adopted prior to independence in 1980 – are still used to persecute HRDs, activists and journalists, the most relevant being the Public Order and Security Act of 2002 (POSA) and Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act of 2003 (AIPPA).

The former provides for the notification of the regulating authority of any intentions to hold a meeting that is “of a political nature”. Since its adoption, many human rights defenders have been arrested, detained and prosecuted under its provisions. The act unreasonably and unjustifiably encroaches on the rights of individuals and groups to exercise their rights to freedom of assembly and association.

The second Act requires accreditation of journalists by authorities. In previous mission reports, the Observatory documented how licenses have been allegedly selectively granted to pro-government journalists while denied to independent journalists Moreover, AIPPA has been effectively used to silence the independent media such as the privately-owned Daily News and the Daily News on Sunday, which have now been closed. Journalists have experienced difficulties in having their accreditation processed in terms of the requirements of the Act. A number of journalists from the independent media have been arrested and charged under AIPPA for offences such as the publication of falsehoods, and failure to register or accredit under the politicised and non-professional body of the Media and Information Commission under Robert Mugabe’s rule. This has severely restricted the enjoyment of the right to freedom of expression and freedom of the press.

A discredited Zimbabwe Electoral Commission and an instrumentalisation of the State apparatus by Zanu-PF created an imbalance and unequal electoral campaign

Although the political and civil space has seemingly opened up since November 2017, access to resources has been still very imbalanced in favour of the ruling party. In a report by the Zimbabwe Elections Support Network (ZESN), ZANU-PF has been accused of gaining an unfair advantage over the opposition by using state resources such as vehicles, land, food aid and state media[3]. The report also disclosed that ZANU-PF used threats and violence to force people to attend rallies.

Furthermore, state media is still biased towards ZANU-PF in terms of coverage. Only minor opposition parties are covered in the media, while major opposition parties have very little access to media coverage. In reaction to this limitation, members of opposition parties have found ways around this through the increased use of social media to organise campaigns, mobilise and conduct their advocacy work e.g. via Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, WhatsaApp and other online platforms. For instance, the #ThisFlag, #Tajamuka and #OccupyAfricaUnitySquare were all successful online movements initiated by HRDs.

Additionally, members of ZANU-PF have been accused of appropriating school and church buildings, furniture and vehicles for political rallies and campaigns, and forcing teachers and school children to attend political meetings. The Association of Rural Teachers Unions of Zimbabwe (ARTUZ) lodged an urgent application, before the High Court of Zimbabwe,against ZANU-PF and the Ministey of Primary and Secondary Education in June 2018 (the ‘Safe Schools’ case) detailing several specific incidents, including where rallies were held on school grounds, teachers and children were forced to attend rallies during school hours, benches and chairs were removed from classrooms.[4]. On 28 June 2018, the High Court delivered an order barring political parties from “asking, encouraging or forcing children in schools from attending political rallies, forcing teachers to attend rallies or to make financial contributions toward rallies, and using school property for rallies including school grounds, buses, furniture, etc[5]. ZANU-PF appealed this order on flimsy grounds and continued to perpetrate the violations prohibited by the court order. This forced ARTUZ to make another urgent application to Masvingo High Court, on 11 July 2018, to ensure that ZANU PF and the Minister of Primary and Secondary Education comply with the order granted by the High Court, pending the appeal.[6]. ARTUZ was once again successful in court but there are still reports of ZANU-PF continuing with these prohibited actions.

The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC), the independent constitutional institution officially tasked to prepare for, conduct and supervise the elections in Zimbabwe, has been accused, by civil society organisations and activists, of failing to uphold its constitutional mandate by ensuring that elections are free, fair, transparent and legal, for several years. In the run-up to July 30, 2018 there appears to be a widespread lack of confidence in ZEC once again. This is evidenced by the various court cases, brought by members of opposition parties, currently pending before courts and complaints from Zimbabwean civil society organisations against ZEC on issues of transparency, accountability, release of the voters roll, integrity of the voters roll, design, printing, security and transporting of the ballot paper, the postal ballot process, collusion with ZANU-PF and the military, credibility of the appointed chairperson and commissioners, fraud etc.[7].

According to June and July 2018 reports from ZESN and Zimbabwe Solidarity Forum (ZSF)), the inordinate number of indictments against ZEC significantly compromises the integrity of the upcoming elections and presents a very high risk for the electoral malpractices and irregularities of previous elections to be replayed, or at least raises a basis for strong suspicion on the part of the contestants – mainly opposition parties – in a way that poses a danger to a smooth electoral process taking place.

In spite of these apprehensions, it appears that the elections will still be held on July 30, 2018, as provided for under the Constitution. MDC Alliance organised a mass public protest on July 11, 2018 in Harare where people took to the streets chanting “No reform, no elections !” and marched to the office of ZEC. During the protest, The leader of MDC Alliance, Mr. Nelson Chamisa stated that the party will not boycott elections but will make sure the elections are not held if ZEC fails to meet the party’s demands and expectations of transparency and impartiality. Just a few days before July 30 elections, MDC Alliance claims they are at a “stalemate” with ZEC and intents on shutting down Harare with another mass demonstration, requesting a mass meeting with the political parties, civil society and the church and escalating the matter to SADC by requesting an extraordinary summit.”[8].

Among the last controversies, MDC Alliance denounced that the advance vote of the police and the military on July 12, 2018 took place quietly, without the presence of representatives of the different political parties, or even officials of ZEC. The latter later reported that it had not been kept informed of the holding of this advance vote. Only police officers in charge of monitoring the process were present.[9].

The military is still considered as a potential threat to a peaceful and credible democratic process

Since the fall of Robert Mugabe, the country remains apprehensive about the military’s continued involvement in government compounded by the already existing threat of the conflation between the military and ZANU-PF. The military assisted change of government, although generally accepted at the height of the “Mugabe-must-go” movement, further confirmed public perception that the military is intertwined with ZANU-PF. Much like his predecessor, President Emmerson Mnangagwa has been criticised for seemingly consolidating his power by awarding senior military generals who facilitated his rise to power with key cabinet positions. For instance, retired Major General Sibusiso Moyo, who announced the military takeover on state television was appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs, long-serving Chief Air Marshall Perence Shiri is now Minister of Agriculture, Lands and Rural Resettlement, and the Chief of the Army Constantino Chiwenga was appointed Vice-President and Minister of the Defence Force.

The military played a key role in cementing the Mugabe regime since 1980 but turned on him on 14 November 2017 and installed Emmerson Mnangagwa as President. There are therefore well-founded fears that if the outcome of the general elections is not in favour of the ruling party instability would ensue.

Since November 2017 the military has replaced the police (ZRP) and the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) as the main instrument of intimidation, fear and perpetration of violence against opponents of ZANU-PF. There are reports by Zimbabwe civil society organisations that between 2,000 and 5,000 members of the military have been deployed to rural villages ahead of the elections, in order to intimidate villagers and campaign for Mnangagwa and ZANU-PF. According to reports from Zimbabwe Democracy Institute, these soldiers are deployed in the villages to do government agricultural work or peace and security maintenance. Some wear uniforms and others civilian clothing but are still identifiable. The soldiers work closely with war veterans and traditional leaders to distribute food aid and agricultural inputs to the villagers. According to the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute (ZDI) report published on July 10, 2018, the main observation was that this embedment of the military in rural villages is a form of structured subtle intimidation by ZANU-PF to secure fear induced votes.[10]


In the coming months, the Observatory will publish a full report detailing findings of the mission and addressing specific and targeted recommendations on the situation of human rights defenders and of fundamental freedoms in Zimbabwe. This report will include analysis and recommendations for upholding respect for fundamental freedoms, respect of civic space for HRDs and ensuring the protection of HRDs.

The mission delegation was composed of Arnold TSUNGA, FIDH Vice-President, Alice MOGWE, FIDH Secretary General and Executive Director of DITSHWANELO – the Botswana Centre for Human Rights, Jacob VAN GARDEREN, Director of Public Interest Practice and Legal advisor at Lawyers for Human Rights - South Africa, Thandeka CHAUKE, Candidate Attorney at Lawyers for Human Rights – South Africa. It was accompanied by Okay Machisa, National Director of ZimRights.

Notably, the mission met with:

 specific CSOs including: Zimbabwe Christian Alliance, Elections Situation Room, Grace to Lead, Bulawayo Progressive Residents Association, Youth for Innovation, Christian Legal Society, Zimbabwe Human Rights Association, Women of Zimbabwe Arise, Bulawayo Vendors and Traders Association, Bindura University, Shalom Projects, National Association for Non-Governmental Association, Habakkuk Trust, Women’s Institute for Leadership Development, Election Resources Centre and Counselling Services Unit;
 representatives of political parties including : ZANU-PF, MDC Youth Assembly, Peoples Rainbow Coalition, Mthwakazi Republic Party;
 representatives of the national Judiciary;
 representatives of international partners and foreign diplomatic mission of representatives of the European Union, the United Nations (Fiona Adolu), the Swedish embassy and the French embassy.

For the past ten years, the Observatory has monitored the situation of HRDs and civil society organisations operating in Zimbabwe, and carried out several facts- finding and advocacy missions in the country.

The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (the Observatory) was created in 1997 by FIDH and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT). The objective of this programme is to intervene to prevent or remedy situations of repression against human rights defenders. FIDH and OMCT are both members of ProtectDefenders.eu, the European Union Human Rights Defenders Mechanism implemented by international civil society.

Press contacts:
FIDH: Samuel Hanryon: +33 6 72 28 42 94 / Maryna Chebat: +33 6 48 05 91 57
OMCT: Marta Gionco: +41 22 809 4939

[1] See “Zimbabwean Army addresses Media Briefing on Elections” posted by Zimbo Media on 4 July 2018: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UZO3YbiP1uU&feature=youtu.be&t=8m50s ; see also “Safety of journalists in question as poll date nears” article in the Daily Maverick published on 11 July 2018: https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2018-07-11-safety-of-journalists-in-question-as-poll-date-nears/ .
[2] The army warning was described as “ominous” and has been condemned by one of the HRDs, Mr. Siphosami Malunga, as an unconstitutional and criminal attempt to stifle the right to freedom of expression See “Why army warning is ominous” article by Siphosami Malunga in the Standard published on 15 July 2018: https://www.thestandard.co.zw/2018/07/15/army-warning-omnious/.
[3] See ZESN Report on the Pre-Election Environment and Observation of Key Electoral Processes: http://www.zesn.org.zw/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/ZESN-REPORT-ON-PRE-ELECTION-POLITICAL-ENVIRONMENT-AND-OBSERVATION-OF-KEY-ELECTORAL-PROCESSES.pdf .
[4] See ARTUZ v ZANU-PF and the Minister of Primary and Secondary Education (HC 263/18) 25 and 28 June 2018: http://veritaszim.net/node/2495; see also 2017 report by the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission “ Investigative report on Participation of School Children at Political Rallies” http://www.zhrc.org.zw/download/teachers-unions-of-zimbabwe-vs-1-ministry-of-primary-and-secondary-education-2-zanu-pf/#
[5] See statement on ARTUZ and Veritas’ litigation for safe schools: https://bulawayo24.com/index-id-news-sc-press+release-byo-140196.html
[6] See ARTUZ v ZANU-PF the Minister of Primary and Secondary Education (HC 297/18) 17 July 2018: http://veritaszim.net/node/2495 .
[7] See “Zimbabwe 2018 Elections: BVR Analysis” report by Team Pachedu published on 16 July 2018: http://kubatana.net/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/mainreport.pdf; see also ZESN Press Releave on Audit of 2018 Voters Roll dated 19 July 2018: http://www.zesn.org.zw/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/ZESN-Press-Release-on-Audit-of-the-2018-Voters-Roll.pdf
[8] Watch MDC Alliance media brief by Mr. Nelson Chamisa on 17 July 2018 (from 11:48 – 17:25): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dosq7WQ0RHY; see also “Nelson Chamisa Threatens to take ZEC Headon over Printing of Ballot Papers” article by VOA Africa published on 17 July 2018: https://www.voazimbabwe.com/a/nelson-chamisa-threatens-to-take-zec-headon-elections-zimbabwe/4486127.html
[9] Read the article « Uproar as police votes clandestinely », The Independent Zimbabwe, 13 July 2018 : https://www.theindependent.co.zw/2018/07/13/uproar-as-police-vote-clandestinely/
[10] See report “Zanu-PF/Military Deterrence of the Village Vote”: http://kubatana.net/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/zdi_zanupf_military_village_vote_180710.pdf .

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