'Rule of law is our currency'

HARARE - On Monday the world commemorated the International Human Rights Day, but in Zimbabwe there were muted celebrations as the country grapples with its immediate challenges.

Senior Assistant Editor Guthrie Munyuki in his latest instalment interviewed the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) director Irene Petras on the scope of the organisation’s work and below are the excerpts.

Q: How do you describe your operating environment in relation to your efforts to foster and encourage the growth and strengthening of human rights at all levels of Zimbabwean society?

A: Our environment reflects that in which the generality of Zimbabweans operate, in that we continue to walk a tightrope between hope and despair.

Some of our interventions and activities have been met positively by both state and non-state actors.

These include our work to assert the rights of people living with HIV, improve service-delivery for poor communities, capacitate legislators and parliamentary committees, implement recommendations from the United Nations Universal Periodic Review process in collaboration with the ministry of Justice, and improve the conditions of prisons and other places of detention.

However, we continue to face challenges in our interactions with law enforcement agents, both through harassment of lawyers and also due to the misinterpretation of the law and selective prosecution of legitimate human rights defenders using repressive and unreformed legislation.

This leads to unnecessary clashes with the state, violations of fundamental rights and freedoms, and negative publicity for our country. The culture of impunity and aversion to accountability and transparency therefore continue to haunt both our society and our organisational operations.

Q: How influential are you pursuant to your objectives?

A: Rightly or wrongly, lawyers remain influential within society, moreso where they use their skills to do work which benefits their society in concrete ways — even at a personal or financial cost to themselves.

Our interventions can improve or positively change the lives of people, ensure that the Constitution and laws are respected and enforced, and increase accountability of various actors.

They can highlight bad practices and exert pressure for positive reforms and the progressive attainment of social and economic justice.

I believe that we remain influential both within the domestic sphere, through our work ethic as an organisation and through various networks, and also within the region where the legal profession has become increasingly active in demanding adherence to the rule of law and jointly addressing common thematic challenges that know no geographical boundaries.

It is for such reasons that I believe ZLHR has been recognised by both the Sadc legal community and the regional human rights community to coordinate various networks and initiatives that promote and protect rights and freedoms.

Q. What are some of the challenges the ZLHR faces in its quest to have implementation and protection of human rights in Zimbabwe?

A: At the broader level, I believe that some individuals and institutions have not taken the time to learn more about the broad scope of work that ZLHR undertakes throughout the country.

This leads to unfounded negative perceptions about our objectives and stereotypes of who we are and what we do as an organisation.

Linked to this is the daily challenge of lawyers wrongly being associated with their clients or the activities of their clients.

This politicised and suspicious environment, as well as the attacks on lawyers, often presents unnecessary barriers to lawyers carrying out their professional duties of defending human rights defenders, seeking to improve bad laws and eradicate bad practices.

At a more practical level, a culture of impunity and bad administrative practices within state institutions continue to make our work more difficult, as does defiance of court orders by the executive.

Q. Where does Zimbabwe stand in as far as implementation and protection of human rights are concerned?

A: I would say that this continues to be a mixed bag. More efforts have been made to improve in certain areas (such as public health, education and women’s rights) than others (such as respecting the rights of accused persons, diversifying the media and access to information, and providing remedies to victims and survivors of past human rights violations).

The State has produced reports to both the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the United Nations on the progress it believes has been made, and if one reads this together with shadow reports produced by civil society, one can get a sense of how good or bad the progress has been.

The new Constitution — although far from perfect — presents an opportunity for renewed vigour and action to improve on all areas — both those which have seen some progress, and those in which Zimbabwe is lagging behind other countries in the region.

Q: What gaps exist in our constitution and what can be done to plug them?

A: In any constitution, no matter how good, there will always be gaps. These you will see as time progresses and as society evolves.

The gaps will also depend on what issues are of concern to a particular person or group.

As ZLHR, we produced a simplified chart before the referendum showing issues of concern to us as an organisation.

These gaps are still there and we will continue to litigate, educate and advocate for the reforms we believe are critical to bring increased accountability to institutions we as taxpayers fund, and which are accountable to the public.

Q: Does the new constitution strengthen the rights and protect citizens from violations?

A: The constitution has expanded the fundamental rights that are now protected, including economic, social and even environmental rights.

There have been attempts, although imperfect, to make state actors and institutions more accountable.

However, there is urgent need to harmonise the laws with the new Constitution so that it can become more of a living document.

Also, as I always say, you can have the best constitution in the world, but if there is no will to respect that document — its ethos, founding principles and aspirations — and no will to hold every person equally accountable against that document, you will continue to witness violations.

We have become a society that is highly individualistic, corrupt, believes in “quick fixes” and uncaring for the rights of others, and until this changes, no constitution will ever prevent rights being violated.

Q: How can Zimbabwe improve its human rights record and what could be your role in helping other stakeholders in doing this?

A: To me, it is very simple.

Obey the constitution and the laws of the country and international treaties to which you have bound yourself.

Hold those who violate the law accountable without fear or favour and in a timely way.

Once society sees that there are no sacred cows, behaviour will be modified very, very quickly.

Do not view everyone with suspicion and do not seek to suppress debate and critique no matter how much it may hurt.

Rather develop a new culture of inclusion and communication to argue robustly but respectfully for or against different points of view.

Allow everyone’s voice and opinion to be heard.

ZLHR assists through providing legal assistance to ensure peoples’ rights are respected and due process is followed.

It will also continue to assist by contributing to debate and public rights literacy initiatives, and by interacting with government on assessing progress and implementation of recommendations on reforms.

Q: What has been the impact of your programmes and could you give a brief outline of these?

A: ZLHR, I believe, has greatly contributed to improving access to justice initiatives through providing legal assistance to human rights defenders throughout the country.

It has largely come to the aid of a state system that had all but collapsed, and you would be surprised if you were to know the identities of some of the people who refer cases to us for assistance!

Our public interest litigation has contributed to the development of jurisprudence locally, as well as in the region.

ZLHR has contributed to improved rights literacy and debate on issues relating to the promotion and protection of rights at the local, national and regional levels, and both within civil society and through various state institutions and actors.

Our project on HIV and the law has brought us closer to communities at the local level to understand their issues and be partners in finding common solutions, whilst our research and policy formulation work will be critical in how we hope to interact with state and non-state actors going forward.

Q: What are some of the high profile cases you have handled and which ones are still outstanding and why?

A: For a ZLHR lawyer, every case is a high-profile case. I believe that if more of our “every-day” public interest cases were known or profiled, our organisation would not be so misunderstood by some people and institutions.

However, there are a number of trials involving civic actors and organisations that have not yet been finalised, and we have a number of constitutional challenges that are also pending.

You may be aware that our own chairperson, Beatrice Mtetwa, is currently in the midst of her trial at Rotten Row, and this has been going on for some time now.

The justice delivery system tends to move quite slowly and there are often unnecessary delays and postponements of cases, but we are hopeful that the attempts by the Judicial Service Commission to establish a case-management system and the operational Code of Ethics will improve the administration of justice in all courts.

Q: Zimbabwean police has been accused of violating rights of citizens, including criminals, to the extent of being sued. Have you ever handled litigation on behalf of aggrieved citizens in relation to violations?

A: We have in the past, and continue to represent clients who have brought legal claims against various state actors, including the police, for violations of their rights during arrest, or whilst in detention.

Some examples include many individuals who were subjected to abduction/enforced disappearances in 2008, including Jestina Mukoko, and more recently some of the accused from the “Glen View” case who were acquitted at the close of the state’s case.

Q: How does the absence of the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commissioner affect what you strive to achieve?

A: The appointment of a new Chairperson for the Commission is overdue and should be resolved so that there is no vacuum and we do not continue to violate our own Constitution.

The bigger challenge is how to press the government to urgently finance the activities of the Commission so that it can work on its critical mandate effectively.

The need to equip the commission to properly perform its functions, appoint an executive secretary and secretariat and allow the sub-committees to become operational is also overdue and further delays will be perceived by stakeholders as a means of trying to prevent the Commission from promoting and protecting human rights effectively.

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