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Zim human rights crisis worsens



ZIMBABWE’S human rights record deteriorated in 2022 as the repressive state apparatus led the violations, a development that may culminate in further international isolation, a new report by Human Rights Watch has revealed.


President Emmerson Mnangagwa promised to break with the past and engage the international community following the ouster of long-time leader Robert Mugabe in 2017. Mugabe, who ruled the southern African nation for 37, was blamed for relegating Zimbabwe to a pariah state following accusations of electoral fraud and a checkered human rights record.

Mnangagwa took power after a military coup codenamed Operation Restore Legacy, promising to build a new democratic state and bring Zimbabwe back into the family of nations.

According to Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2023, Zimbabwe is cited as one of the 100 countries in the world whose human rights situation worsened in the past year.

“The human rights climate in Zimbabwe deteriorated in 2022 without the government taking any meaningful steps to uphold rights and ensure justice for serious past abuses primarily committed by state security forces,” the organisation says.

“There has been little progress on investigations into abductions, torture, arbitrary arrests, and other abuses against opposition politicians and activists. The government has yet to pass the Independent Complaints Commission Bill to establish an independent complaint mechanism — as provided by Zimbabwe’s Constitution — to receive and investigate public complaints against the security services.

“Repression of civil society organisations and activists continued unabated in 2022. In November 2021, the government proposed a bill to amend the Private Voluntary Organisations (PVO) Act to further restrict the operations of non-governmental organisations (NGOs). The government said the amendment is aimed at curbing terrorism financing and money laundering to comply with the Financial Action Taskforce (FATF) recommendations.”

The enactment of new laws such as the Cyber and Data Protection Act, the report said, is an affront to democracy.

“There are, however, concerns that its passage would seriously threaten the right to freedom of association in the country. The Cyber and Data Protection Act of 2021 has further undermined the rights of Zimbabweans, including civil society groups and human rights defenders,” the report says.

“In February and March 2022, the authorities slowed down the internet significantly, with disruptions, during rallies and demonstrations by opposition parties and their supporters. Section 73 of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Amendment Act, 2006 (Criminal Law Code), which punishes consensual same-sex conduct between men with up to one year in prison, a fine or both, contributes to stigma and discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people.”

The human rights watchdog also accused the Zimbabwean authorities of impunity and selective application of the law despite the escalating situation.

“Authorities often arbitrarily arrested, harassed, and prosecuted critics of the ruling party through lengthy detentions and trials. Notable critic and author, Tsitsi Dangarembga, and another protester, Julie Barnes, have faced a prolonged trial since their arrest in July 2020 during an anti-government protest on charges of public incitement to violence, breach of peace, and bigotry,” Human Rights Watch says.

On 29 September, the Harare magistrates’ court gave them a six-month suspended jail sentence and a fine for participating in a public gathering with the intent to incite violence and for breaking Covid-19 protocols.

The Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) Alliance members, Cecilia Chimbiri, Netsai Marova, and a member of Parliament, Joana Mamombe, were in court 61 times between January and May 2022, facing charges of faking their own abduction.

The authorities are prosecuting the three women for reporting that in May 2020 they were allegedly abducted from police custody by suspected state security agents, assaulted and sexually abused, then dumped in Bindura, 80 kilometres from Harare. They were accused of taking part in a protest against the government during the Covid-19 lockdown.

“Failure to investigate these women’s reports of assault and sexual abuse violates the country’s obligation to ensure access to justice and effective remedies in cases of human rights violations under international and African regional human rights law. More than four years after the Motlanthe Commission of Inquiry’s into the 2018 post-election violence, no steps have been taken to implement its recommendations This includes ensuring justice for the six people killed and 35 injured by government security forces,” the report reads.

Turning to rights to food, water, and sanitation, Human Rights Watch says while the government has introduced several action plans to address the growing food insecurity in the country, such as the National Nutrition Strategy and the National Policy on Drought Management, there has been no effective implementation of farming projects, allegedly due to corruption, poor policy implementation, and lack of coordination among the ruling and opposition political parties.

Many parts of Zimbabwe continue to face a water crisis, with some places in Harare going without safe water for years, and residents turning to potentially contaminated wells and boreholes.

Human Rights Watch research shows that neighbouring towns like Chitungwiza, Ruwa, Epworth, and Norton draw water from Harare’s water system, which is reportedly contaminated with algae and toxic substances linked to incidents of water-borne diseases in those locations.

In 2022, according to media reports, water supplies varied from erratic to non-existent in some parts of Harare, following a reduction in water production at Morton Jaffray Water Treatment Waterworks.

The country’s second-largest city, Bulawayo, has faced similar water shortages. In March, the city council introduced 20-hour day water rationing due to poor rainfall. Access to safe water has also remained a challenge in rural areas, with some places being more affected than others due to a lack of reliable water sources such as dams and boreholes.

“The government has taken some positive steps to address the crisis, including setting aside US$5.3 million for a critical Harare water treatment project. There are, however, delays in disbursing the funds, exposing residents to further risks. The lingering water crisis has affected the rights of Zimbabweans under section 77 of the 2013 constitution, which provides for the right to safe, clean, and potable water,” the report reads.

Commenting on forced evictions, Human Rights Watch notes that the government has continued to designate land for mining and commercial projects, without consulting the affected communities. 

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