THE arrest last week of trade union leaders alongside other political activists and their subsequent assault at Matapi police station serves as the latest
installment of how Zimbabwe has been wiping its feet on international conventions.
The incident which raised the anger of trade union organisations worldwide, refocused a harsh spotlight on Zimbabwe’s already soiled human rights record.
Various international labour, human rights and civic organisations joined in a chorus of condemnation of government action, calling for the perpetrators to be punished.
Zimbabwe became a member of the UN five months after attaining Independence from Britain in August 1980, putting itself in the ambit of the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment which came into force on June 26 1987.
The Convention was adopted and opened for signature, ratification and accession by General Assembly resolution 39/46 of December 10 1984.
Article 2 of the Convention to which 141 of the 192 member nations are party states: “Each State Party shall take effective legislative, administrative, judicial or other measures to prevent acts of torture in any territory under its jurisdiction.”
Ten members signed the Convention but are yet to ratify it.
Zimbabwe, for all its belligerent howls of being a sovereign state that has to be left to its own designs, has resisted any attempt to criminalise torture. Instead, it has granted culprits immunity as illustrated by perpetrators of political violence since the June 2000 election.
Article 4 of the UN Convention says each state shall ensure that all acts of torture are offences under its criminal law. The same shall apply to an attempt to commit torture and to an act by any person which constitutes complicity or participation in torture.
“Each State Party shall make these offences punishable by appropriate penalties which take into account their grave nature.”
Parliament has requested President Mugabe to ratify the UN Convention Against Torture but he has taken an inordinate time to append his signature.
On Monday more than 50 trade unionists marched outside the Zimbabwean Embassy in Washington chanting: “Stop the beatings, stop the torture,” and “ZCTU, American workers support you,” to protest recent attacks against members of the ZCTU by government. Barbara Shailor, an the American Federation of Labour and Congress of Industrial Organisations (AFL-CIO) programme officer, said it was very important to demonstrate on the day Mugabe was coming
to New York to attend the annual meeting of the UN General Assembly.
“We need to tell the embassy that we will not stand for the violation of trade union rights in Zimbabwe. What these people have gone through must not go unnoticed as Mugabe moves about the streets of New York,” Shailor said.
Members of the AFL-CIO, a major US labour organisation, marched in front of the Zimbabwean Embassy carrying placards that read “Promote workers’ rights worldwide” and “Mugabe — free unionists.”
David Claxton, an officer with the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU) demanded that Mugabe investigate the assault, medical care for all those injured, protection of the right of labour to organise and “active government engagement with the ZCTU to resolve the economic crisis” in Zimbabwe.
Tony Baker, another CBTU member, told the crowd: “Almost 20 years ago, CBTU led a demonstration to the South African Embassy protesting apartheid. There is nothing different about South Africa then and Zimbabwe now. The only difference was that (South Africa) was a white regime oppressing black workers and this (Zimbabwe) is a black regime oppressing black workers.”
David Dorn, director of international programmes for the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), said: “We are here because this suppression of labour in Zimbabwe has just gone on far too long. Our organisation has been working with the teachers’ union in Zimbabwe for a number of years now, actually with help from the State Department. But the problem is people are suffering so much it’s hard to sustain an education programme in a country where people are scrabbling just to get by from day to day.”
The United States, a critic of Mugabe’s decades of misrule, has condemned the attacks.
US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said last Thursday’s action by government against those wishing to protest on behalf of greater democracy, better wages and access to treatment for Aids sufferers, was another example of its denial of basic rights to its citizens.
“We call for the immediate release of those detained and access to medical treatment for those who were injured,” he said.
Lord Triesman, in a statement from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office following the crackdown on the trade union demonstration in Zimbabwe, said: “The British government condemns these actions. The people of Zimbabwe, suffering from economic decline caused by flawed policies, have the right to voice their concerns through peaceful protest. This attack on the ZCTU is the latest in a series of well-documented and brutal crackdowns by the government of Zimbabwe to suppress any form of civic opposition. The violence associated with this suppression is a further abuse of human rights.
“Zimbabwe is in the midst of an accelerating crisis. This is an economy at the point of collapse. We urge the government of Zimbabwe to start a process of national dialogue, including all opposition and civil society, and undertake a fundamental and sustainable reform programme based on national consensus.”
The statement said the arrests had in some cases led to assaults, as well as refusal of access to legal representation and medical treatment.
Locally, condemnation came from the Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights for the assault on ZCTU members and supporters from Wednesday until the evening of Thursday.
“ZADHR condemns the initial refusal by the police to release the injured from Matapi police station to a medical facility for urgent treatment,” the doctors said in a statement.
Chairperson of ZADHR, Dr Douglas Gwatidzo, said his organisation was also very concerned that other ZCTU members may be in grave medical condition at other police stations in Zimbabwe.
The Zimbabwe Human Rights Forum (ZHRF), a coalition of 16 rights groups, said in a statement condemning the assault on labour leaders and activists from civic organisations: “Torture in Zimbabwe is both widespread and systemic, demanding both a national and an international response. The ZHRF demands … the immediate investigation of all allegations of torture and the prosecution of all those guilty of torture.”
The Convention on torture, among other provisions, says “no exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture”.
It says an order from a superior officer or a public authority may not be invoked as a justification for torture.
The Congress of South African Trade Unions demanded disciplinary action against police officers found to have been responsible for the beating and torture of detainees.
Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides that no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment in conformity with the declaration adopted by the General Assembly on December 9 1975.
Zimbabwe’s torture record became tainted a mere two years after Independence in the Matabeleland campaign during which an estimated 20 000 people were killed in operations launched ostensibly to flush out dissidents.
Six years ago, with the emergence of a robust opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) incidents of torture heightened.
An analysis by the Zimbabwe Human Right NGO Forum published in June this year singles out the Home Affairs and Defence ministers as defendants in cases of torture which peaked in 2003.
“The involvement of the army in torture is reflected in allegations by perpetrators but it was also the case that the uniformed branch of the ZRP and the CID were significantly associated with torture,” the NGO Forum says in its compilation of torture statistics.
Under the Convention member states have an obligation to ensure that education and information regarding the prohibition against torture are fully included in the training of law enforcement personnel.