PRESIDENT Emmerson Mnangagwa on Tuesday announced a raft of measures to contain and mitigate the spread of the deadly coronavirus (Covid-19) after a sharp increase in infections in the country.
Among the tough measures, Mnangagwa introduced a 6pm to 6am curfew starting Wednesday, a move opposition political parties, civil society and human rights groups see as meant to stop a planned July 31 protest against corruption and the tanking economy.
The Daily News on Sunday Senior Staff Writer Blessings Mashaya on Thursday caught up with Human Rights Watch southern Africa director, Dewa Mavhinga, to interrogate Mnangagwa’s measures, the political and economic situation in the country. Below are the excerpts.
Q: What is your view on measures announced by President Mnangagwa to contain the spread of Covid-19, such as the curfew and limiting of business operating hours?
A: The government of Zimbabwe has the authority, in the broader interest of public health, to put in place measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19, but such measures must be proportionate and directly relevant to containing Covid-19.
But the measures put in place by President Mnangagwa raise serious concerns as they seem to use the pretext of a Covid-19 response to, de facto, be a state of emergency law that allows further suppression of the rights to freedom of expression, association, and assembly. This is especially worrying considering planned anti-corruption protests slated for July 31.
Q: Is a curfew necessary when there is no intensified testing and contact tracing on the ground?
A: If a curfew is necessary, then the government of Zimbabwe has not done enough to explain and justify it to the public. Covid-19 regulations are most effective when the public trusts the government and fully complies, not when there is grave suspicion that imposed curfews are political, to achieve repression, rather than to secure public health goals.
Zimbabwe has the unique achievement of having arrested more people for allegedly breaking Covid-19 regulations than it has tested for Covid-19.
There is no robust tracing of contacts on the ground, while much focus is put on keeping people indoors without sufficient intervention measures to support vulnerable members of the community at a time when over half the country’s population is dependent on food aid and over two million people in greater-Harare have no access to safe drinking water.
Q: What are the fears in regard to the curfew in as far as observance of human rights are concerned?
A: An arbitrary and ill-planned curfew might actually result in a greater spread of Covid-19 as people rush to leave the city to beat the curfew, likely overcrowding in the limited public transport available as the government banned kombis.
A perpetual lockdown is not sustainable as most people’s livelihoods in the informal economy depend on them being able to work every day, so lockdowns violate their rights to food and livelihoods.
The security forces have often used heavy-handed methods to enforce Covid-19 regulations and it is likely many citizens will be abused for allegedly violating Covid-19 regulations when they are simply unable to comply because they have no public transport, for example.
Q: Do you believe that the government will finally align laws to the new Constitution which guarantees the freedoms brought by the new supreme law?
A: All indications point to a re-treat by the government from fully aligning laws to the new Constitution. For instance, amendments contained in the controversial Constitutional Amendment 2 have little to do with the alignment and full implementation of the Constitution, but rather, consolidation or concentration of power in the executive.
The Constitution allows citizens to peacefully protest and petition, but the government treats this as unlawful and criminal, hence the arrest of … Jacob Ngarivhume on charges of incitement of violence when he simply called for anti-corruption protests on July 31.
Q: What is wrong with the current administration in as far as respecting people’s rights are concerned?
A: The current administration talks about respecting people’s rights, but it does not respect fundamental rights and freedoms contained in the Constitution of Zimbabwe.
A number of security forces members have been implicated in abuse of rights during protests, like the August 1, 2018 protests where six people were killed and the Motlanthe Commission recommended those responsible to be punished, but nothing happened.
So, there is impunity where elements in security forces commit abuses without justice or accountability.
Human Rights Watch investigations found that State security forces used excessive and lethal force to crush nationwide protests in January 2019.
During and after the protests, the forces fired live ammunition that killed 17 people, and at least 17 women were raped. No security personnel have been arrested or prosecuted for these abuses.
The same with rising cases of abductions and torture of government critics, including Obert Masaraure, Tatenda Mombeyarara, Samantha Kureya, Dr Peter Magombeyi, Netsai Marova, Cecilia Chimbiri and MP Joana Mamombe.
The State has been quick to dismiss these cases, despite overwhelming evidence, and has so far refused to allow independent investigations, including those led by United Nations Special Procedures Mechanisms.
The Zimbabwe Constitution (Section 210) provides for an Independent Complaints Mechanism to receive complaints from the public about abuses by the security forces, but this mechanism was never established.
Rampant, filthy corruption means important resources that could ensure people’s rights to health, water, and food are diverted to the politically connected, leaving citizens’ socio-economic rights compromised.
Hospitals have no medicines and equipment, roads are not repaired and dangerous to drive on, cities do not have enough clean water, and the money is looted without any punishment for the looters.
Q: Given the deteriorating political and economic situation in the country, what is the best way forward of avoiding a violent conflict?
A: The best way forward is for the government to be a genuinely listening government that consults citizens for solutions and works with them closely. Propaganda does not work, the world is watching, so the best way forward is to simply commit and show respect for human rights and the rule of law and take decisive measures to end corruption.
President Mnangagwa and senior members of his government have said all the right things, what is glaringly lacking is action to back up their words. For instance, President Mnangagwa set up the Motlanthe Commission which was government funded, but there has been little or no action to implement the recommendations of that commission.
The government should move beyond partisan politics and forge a national project that brings the nation together.
For a brief moment, during protests that helped depose (the late former president) Robert Mugabe in November 2017, it seemed the nation was coming together beyond partisan politics, but that hope was soon shattered. Sincere national dialogue led by trusted leaders can help heal the nation of Zimbabwe.
Q: Everyone has been talking about reforms, what are some of the reforms that government has not implemented that you think are important to improve the country’s standing in the eyes of the international community?
A: The Zimbabwe government has not established the constitutional (section 210) Independent Complaints Mechanism to receive public complaints about security forces conduct.
Reforms to make institutions like the security forces and the judiciary truly independent, we need these reforms. Reforms to have independent institutions that decisively deal with corruption and go for the big fish in a big way; reforms to ensure that the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission is genuinely independent and non-partisan; reforms to ensure that those who commit human rights abuses get punished; and reforms to ensure that Zimbabweans can genuinely and freely enjoy their rights to free expression and free, peaceful protests.
Reform should include human rights training and education, with international assistance, for members of the security forces and other state agencies.
All training should be consistent with international human rights standards, such as the United Nations Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials and the Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials.
The government should create an enabling environment for non-governmental organisations, activists, trade union members, and the political opposition to operate freely.
This includes repealing sections of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act on “subverting a constitutional government”, which has been used to prosecute activists and opposition leaders suspected of organising protests.
Q: Do you see broader, sweeping reforms being implemented or the Zimbabwe government is out of time?
A: There is always time for fundamental reforms, but the Zimbabwe government seems unwilling to implement them. Zimbabwe’s full re-engagement with the international community will depend on real change and a clear commitment to respect for human rights, good governance, and the rule of law.
I see the urgent need for sweeping reforms, but I do not see the necessary political will to implement the reforms, unfortunately.
But without those critical reforms, the “Zimbabwe is Open for Business,” mantra will remain an empty slogan as the country plunges into socio-economic and political chaos.