HARARE – Past atrocities such as Gukurahundi and subsequent politically-motivated violations swept under the carpet by the coalition government following the gazetting of the Human Rights Commission Act should be revisited to allow national healing, human rights lawyers have demanded.
Speaking under the auspices of prominent rights group, Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR), the lawyers said it was wrong to ignore past atrocities as suggested by the law used to operationalise the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission (ZHRC).
ZLHR, which has more than 200-member lawyers and law students countrywide, expressed worry over the limited powers of the ZHRC to effectively deal with past atrocities.
“The signing of the Bill into law allows the ZHRC to finally commence its operations amid great expectations from Zimbabweans who have patiently waited for years to realise this long overdue genesis,” the group said in a statement.
Established in 2009 following the formation of a coalition government comprising of Zanu PF and the two MDC formations, ZHRC had failed to carry out its mandate as it did not have a legislative foundation.
ZHRC now has an enabling law after President Robert Mugabe signed the Human Rights Bill into law last Friday.
But human rights lawyers expressed concern that the “powers of the minister of Justice and Legal Affairs remain too wide, discretionary, and may have the effect of blocking key investigations and adversely affecting transparency, accountability and independence of the Commission”.
The human rights commission will ignore past atrocities pre-dating 2009 after Zanu PF prevailed over its government partners who had wanted to include the previous violations.
Lawyers said there was need to establish an independent body that would look into past human rights crimes.
“ZLHR reiterates its call to the coalition government to urgently establish an independent and credible mechanism to deal with issues relating to past human rights violations and atrocities.
“This independent mechanism must be mandated to deal with all past human rights violations that have occurred in Zimbabwe, including the pre-Independence era, as well as the post-Independence atrocities of Gukurahundi, Operation Murambatsvina, and electoral-related crimes, amongst others,” reads the ZLHR statement.
An estimated 20 000 people died during the Gukurahundi massacres of the 1980s by a North Korean-trained military brigade.
And since 2000, hundreds of people have been affected by politically-motivated violence.
In 2005 close to a million people were left homeless after Mugabe ordered a clean-up of cities in order to drive out people who lived in structures he deemed illegal.
Not a single person has been arrested for the crimes amid strong condemnation from human rights groups as well as the United Nations.
The human rights lawyers said although the powers of the ZHRC are limited, the timing for establishing a functional human rights commission could not have been better as the country limps towards a referendum and elections which could be held next year.
“With a constitutional referendum and elections on the horizon, and having reference to historical trends, the existence of a functional mechanism to investigate and deal with politically-motivated rights violations is extremely important, especially where such violations tend to worsen in the run-up to, and following, such national processes.
“The police, the prosecutorial authorities and the judiciary must at all times bear in mind that they have a constitutional and legal obligation to respectively investigate and arrest, prosecute and punish convicted perpetrators,” said ZLHR.