'Rights chief a chicken'

HARARE - Former Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission (ZHRC) chairperson Reginald Austin chickened out of his post because he was incompetent for the job, Justice minister Patrick Chinamasa has said.

Chinamasa told the Daily News Austin was aware of the problems that government was facing in capacitating all commissions set up under the coalition government.

“I was actually surprised that he resigned. I thought we were working well and he understood the challenges we were facing. I think he resigned because he realised he could not do the job. We have provided his commission with a building but for some reason they did not occupy the building,” said Chinamasa.

Efforts to reach Austin proved fruitless but he has previously said he quit because of capacity problems at the commission. Chinamasa said the human rights body former chief showed a lack of seriousness.

“I had personally negotiated with the United Nations Development Programme to fund the furnishing of the offices but again the ZHRC did not make follow-up to collect the furniture,” said Chinamasa.

“We have done what we could under the circumstances. As for the issue of funding it is Treasury that is supposed to make funds available and we all know that government has no money but we are working around that,” Chinamasa said.

The Justice minister added the ZHRC had failed to come up with a structure that would have facilitated the recruitment of staff.

“They do not have a secretariat that was supposed to recruit staff. My job was to take the organogram to Cabinet for approval but they never gave me that. That is the whole essence of independence. I am not supposed to recruit staff for the commission,” he said.

However, Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) director Irene Petras said the powers provided by the Human Rights Act to Chinamasa were excessive.

“The minister just has too much and broad powers which infringe on the operations of the commission. Also it must be noted that in as much as the minister can argue that government provided offices in Harare there was no such facility for provincial offices.

“The Commission needs to be felt and seen in all provinces and not only in Harare,” Petras said.

In a statement following Austin’s quitting, ZLHR called on regional bloc Sadc take note of the warning signs pointing to a country on the edge.

“The facilitator and Sadc to in general must view this development as a warning sign that Zimbabwe remains on the precipice if they do not insist on commitment and action from all political parties to the Global Political Agreement in relation to institutional strengthening and fighting the scourge of politically-motivated violations before we enter another election period,” the statement said.

Austin reportedly cited the current legal framework and lack of resources, which will negatively impact on the commission’s independence and ability to “effectively and independently” carry out its mandate of promoting and protecting human rights in general, and during elections in particular.

“ZLHR has the greatest respect for Professor Austin as a highly experienced, professional and non-partisan individual.

“It is therefore our considered opinion that this resignation is an unequivocal statement of condemnation of the current operating framework of the Commission, in particular the excessive powers of the executive,” the rights lawyers’ body said.

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