By Tichaona Sibanda
11 July 2012
Parliament on Tuesday discussed the amended Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission Bill amid an emotionally charged debate by MDC-T legislators, who say it protects perpetrators of the 2008 political violence.
Of major concern to the MDC-T is a clause in the Bill that prevents Human Rights Commissioners from investigating cases of rights abuses before they were sworn into office on 13th February 2009.
It means the commission does not have the power to investigate any of the political violence in 2008, or before. They can only deal with issues from February 2009 going forward.
The passage of the Bill through the committee stage was delayed due to opposition from MDC-T legislators who felt it didn’t address the contentious issues of killings, torture, and politically motivated violence preceding the 2008 presidential run-off election.
The Bill was moved by Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa who told the House of Assembly that it had been approved by Cabinet last week after the contentious issues were finally resolved through the involvement of negotiators to the GPA.
The Rights Bill and the Electoral Amendment Bill, which also sailed through Parliament Tuesday, were debated in the Senate on Wednesday where they were expected to sail through. (At the time of writing the debate was still in progress).
In 2009 the unity government pledged to work towards human rights reform and it was hoped they would conduct credible and transparent investigations into the serious human rights abuses committed over many years, going back to the Gukurahundi massacres of the 1980’s.
However, a government minister said attempts at a national healing and transitional justice programme in Zimbabwe will not be possible while ZANU PF remains in power.
Moses Mzila Ndlovu, the co-Minister of National Healing from the MDC-N party, recently said that ZANU PF’s continued presence in government was undermining attempts to start moving the country forward.
SW Radio Africa was informed that the MDC-T negotiators to the GPA (Tendai Biti and Elton Mangoma) decided to ‘overlook’ the issue of violence, to ensure the Human Rights Commission is activated before the next elections. They appeared to be convinced that the bill would never have got through without this ‘concession’ to ZANU PF.
But Senator Obert Gutu, the MDC-T deputy Minister of Justice denied their negotiators ‘overlooked’ violence as both of them are proponents of a fair justice delivery system. ‘Look, those guys are two of the brainiest people in the MDC and to say they do not care about what happened to victims of violence is simply not true.
‘We see this as victory for the MDC because ZANU PF didn’t want this Bill at all. It’s an achievement for the MDC because we now have what we’ve been clamoring for, that is a Human Rights watchdog to monitor the elections.
‘I know it falls short of the people’s expectations but let’s also not forget that the Human Rights Commission has not been operational, in spite of the fact that its members have been in office for over two years, since being sworn in by Mugabe in March 2010,’ an MDC-T legislator said.
Legal experts say the Commission is needed to play a vital role during the next election, where it will have the powers to investigate rights violations in the country.
‘People should take solace in that any rights violations in the next elections would be dealt with. We are fighting to win an election, so as politicians we are saying lets not get bogged down on the past as we believe most of those cases will be dealt with under the Criminal Reform Act,’ the MP added.
Lawyer and pro-democracy activist Dewa Mavhinga said the passing of the Bill in Parliament should not mean there is impunity for past abuses. He said there should never be a failure to bring perpetrators of human rights violations to justice, denying the victims their right to justice and redress.
‘The challenge that is there now is to find appropriate mechanisms to deal with past abuses and ensure that the period preceding the formation of the unity government is also covered.
‘It is imperative to deal with the crimes of the past and not sweep them under the carpet in the spirit of reconciliation and nation building. Victims may feel that their voices are being ignored and it usually leads to aggrieved individuals taking action into their own hands, adding to the existing problems,’ Mavhinga said.
Many of those who have committed abuses in the past have remained free to carry out further acts of violence and intimidation, and those in the security forces have even been promoted.
In 2008 supporters and officials of ZANU PF, army officers, war vets and youth militia went on a state sponsored orgy of violence that left over 500 MDC-T supporters dead, tens of thousands injured and half a million displaced.
Commenting on the two Bills, the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights said Zimbabwe remains a country with immense challenges relating to the continuing culture of impunity for perpetrators of human rights violations.
In a statement on Wednesday, the human rights lawyers said without mechanisms to investigate and deal with past human rights violations the country will never be able to escape the vicious cycle of impunity, or ensure that such crimes never happen again.