HomeOpinionCivic society's role in upholding human rights

Civic society’s role in upholding human rights

By Pedzisai Ruhanya

IT has been argued in human rights discourse that domestic advocacy networks such as Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, the National Constitutional Assemb

ly, Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights and opposition political groups in what is known as the “boomerang” pattern of influence, promote and protect human rights through internal and international linkages to bring pressure on the regime to abide by its domestic and international obligations.

In many troubled societies such as Zimbabwe, and even during the Rhodesian era, such situations
arose as a result of failure by the human rights groups to effectively communicate with the authorities and then resort to seeking assistance from their international partners to assist in pressuring the norm- violating government to change its human rights behaviour.

This position should not be construed to mean interference in the domestic affairs of a country, a phrase that has been constantly abused by Zanu PF in a bid to maintain its political grip on power especially when transnational advocacy networks support initiatives of domestic advocacy groups.

This scenario is not new in Zimbabwe because, for instance, the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Zimbabwe and other organisations played this role in the 1970s by mobilising domestic and international human rights networks to condemn the minority government of Ian Smith against the people of Zimbabwe in search of their Independence.

It should also be pointed out that international organisations such as the Red Cross supported the Zimbabwean case then through funding the education of many people in the current Zanu PF leadership through arranged scholarship programmes and the provision of study material while in Smith’s jails.

The same situation should happen today without fear of being labelled puppets and advocates of regime change as if an attempt to lawfully change how citizens are governed is unconstitutional. There ought to be no apologies to this route because it is legitimate, democratic and, above all, constitutional and has historical precedence.

National groups, non-governmental organisations and social movements should link up with transnational networks and international non-governmental organisations when they lobby and convince international human rights organisations, regional and African donor institutions and some powerful African countries such as South Africa and others, to pressure the Zimbabwean authorities to stop human rights abuses and to promote good governance and democratic practices in the conduct of state affairs.

The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights should continue to be used as a platform to legitimately expose the double standards of the Harare administration by flooding it with credible cases of human rights violations in Zimbabwe.

In order for the networks such as the NCA, Crisis Coalition, the NGO Human Rights Forum and the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions to be able to sustain their moral authority over human rights abuses in Zimbabwe and the observation of international norms, there is need for them to be impartial or independent.

It is argued that the networks should be seen as not self-interested. It is further suggested that the networks should not be seen as interested in acquiring political power or as too close to those in political power. This position has been well-articulated by the NCA which has made it clear that its role is not to form the next government or be used as a springboard by people with political ambitions to remove the incumbent government, but to work with all Zimbabweans irrespective of their political affiliations in coming up with a broad-based constitution.

Human rights academics have further suggested that the advocacy networks through their activities put norm-violating states on the international agenda in terms of moral consciousness.

They argue that in doing so, they remind liberal states especially in the West of their moral identity as the promoters of human rights.

This argument seems plausible to persuade norm-violating governments to change their behaviour because in the majority of cases, the Western liberal governments that believe in the promotion and protection of civil and political liberties are providers of bilateral and multilateral aid to some of the norm-violating governments such as Zimbabwe.

For economic survival, especially the receipt of balance of payments support, some of those countries responsible for violating human rights can refrain from doing so in order to preserve their economic relations with both Western governments and aid agencies.

This could be seen in the meetings that Finance minister Herbert Murerwa and Reserve Bank governor Gideon Gono have been holding with the Britton Woods institutions recently, but with no results.

The IMF and the World Bank’s refusal to engage in business with the Zanu PF government is purely based on the poor human rights record of the Harare regime which has been exposed through the work of domestic human rights organisations and other human rights activists who have been victims of the brutal regime of President Robert Mugabe.

The other crucial goal of Zimbabwe’s human rights groups should be to change the behaviour of Zanu PF and its militant organisations such as the Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans Association and its youth militia wing, the Border Gezi vigilante group, as it relates to human rights violations.

These advocacy groups should use methods that have been used by other transnational networks to promote human rights through such tactics as information politics, symbolic politics, and leverage and accountability politics.

These methods were successfully used in Eastern Europe in countries such as Poland and Czechoslovakia and in South American countries like Chile while at home Smith can testify to the effectiveness of these tactics and across the Limpopo River the former apartheid regime will confess how the United Democratic Front (UDF) working together with their partners in Zimbabwe, Zambia, Kenya and the international community brought about democratic rule in South Africa.

In this case, information politics entails the ability of the networks to urgently disseminate politically relevant information to areas and platforms where it has the most impact. It is suggested that these organisations provide critical information about human rights abuses that would not otherwise be available from sources that have no capacity to represent themselves in order to be heard. This information would be made useful to other human rights activists and campaigners who are far away from the scene but could use it to try to lobby for changing or alleviating the crisis in Zimbabwe.

Civic society groups in the country should seek to promote human rights by attempting to make the government of Zimbabwe accountable. It has been argued that once a government has publicly committed itself to a principle, for instance in favour of promoting democratic principles such as the existence of a free press, advocacy networks can use those publicly stated positions and their command of information linkages to highlight and expose the differences between policy pronouncements and the actual practice.

This brings me to the situation where the government of Zimbabwe has pronounced that it wants to set up a human rights commission.

It is crucial for civil organisations to demand that piece-meal changes do not matter. What matters at this political juncture in the political history of Zimbabwe is a constitutional overhaul that is not presided over by an incumbent government that has been at the forefront of trampling on the human rights of its citizens. The government should not be trusted to make the rules of the game because past experience has taught us that the regime is not sincere.

Other players matter in drawing up long-term rules of political discourse and governance in Zimbabwe which should bind every citizen.

In the case of Chile following the 1973 coup, there were extensive efforts by both international and domestic networks to transform international norms into practice.

For instance, human rights organisations such as Amnesty International and the International Commission of Jurists organised around Chile through extensive monitoring to achieve international condemnation, funding domestic opposition groups and research centres, the use of special rapporteurs and lobbying powerful Western governments to take action against the military in Chile.

For instance, Amnesty International and the International Commission of Jurists were among some of the groups who condemned the coup in Chile in 1973. These organisations then called upon other organisations like the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights urging action against Chile to make sure that refugees would be allowed to seek asylum and to leave the country and that the military regime respect human rights.

It is my observation that while it may not be desirable to import willy-nilly methods used elsewhere and while the circumstances could be different, it is important to mention that Zimbabwe is now at a political cliff-edge and there is need for men and women of purpose to come together and use their combined national efforts to avert this disaster.

Pedzisai Ruhanya was deputy new editor of the Daily News.

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