The final adoption of the Zimbabwean government report under the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) will be held on 16 March 2012.
Of the 81 recommendations accepted by the government at the 12th UPR session, only four can be said to reflect a commitment to improving the freedoms to assemble, express and associate. Similarly, none of the 31 recommendations to which the government will confirm its response during the current 19th UNHRC session focuses on any of these freedoms, while of the 65 rejected, nine recommendations relate to the three freedoms.This is an unfortunate scenario given that civil society activists and organisations in Zimbabwe have long endured a restrictive civil and political space, both under the government of Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) and now under the present government of National Unity. These restrictions show no signs of abating as Zimbabwe heads towards a likely referendum on constitutional reform and general elections later this year.
Concerns raised about the restrictive Public Order and Security Act (POSA), 2002 still stand. The law prohibits public gatherings of any type and maintains vague provisions, with harsh penalties, on insulting the president and publishing or communicating false statements against the state. These further restrict freedom of expression, as they are often misinterpreted by authorities to arrest and penalise CSOs and their leaders.
The Zimbabwean government has also maintained a draconian law on the registration of CSOs, which makes it difficult for unregistered CSOs to operate and penalises their leaders. The Private Voluntary Organisation Act (POVA) 2001 reads:
“No private voluntary organisation shall commence or continue to carry on its activities or seek financial assistance from any source unless it has been registered in respect of a particular object or objects in furtherance of which it is being conducted.”
The law further allows authorities to seek information on accountability and order CSOs to register locally. Authorities have used this to harass and intimidate CSOs deemed critical of government. For example, in 2008 the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL) documented the government’s blanket suspension of all CSOs engaged in humanitarian work, causing disruption of food aid and assistance to people in need, including people living with HIV/AIDs and orphans. On 14 February 2012, Tererai Karimakwenda reported in All Africa e-news that the provincial Governor of Masvingo had suspended 29 international and local CSOs in the province on the accusation of failure to register with the local authorities.
Zimbabwe continues to be a difficult country for civil society activists and the government of National Unity has done little to improve the situation. In the last four years, acts of harassment, systematic detention of human rights defenders and attacks on their offices, impeding their freedom of association and assembly, have been reported.
Amnesty International’s submission to the UPR on Zimbabwe in 2011 documented several harassments, and specifically noted targeted hostilities towards women human rights defenders, some of who complained of sexual harassment and physical attack. Amnesty International in the same report noted the prevalence of impunity towards authorities committing such violations.
As Zimbabwe’s report is finally adopted, it is very important that these prevailing concerns are again put to the government. There is need to urge the government to improve freedoms of assembly, association and expression to expand civil society space, as a prerequisite for ensuring democracy and respect for human rights, particularly as Zimbabwe moves towards reforming its constitution and conducting general elections.
Agnes Kabajuni, Policy and Advocacy Officer, CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation