HomeCommentEditor’s Memo: Human rights chief must speak truth to power

Can’t bowl pace, can’t play pace…

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights spokesman, Rupert Colville said last Friday said Pillay, a former South African high court and International Criminal Court judge and president of the International Tribunal for Rwanda, would be in Harare in just over a week’s time to assess the country’s human rights situation.

Colville said Pillay would on May 20 begin the first ever mission by a UN Human Rights chief to Zimbabwe, at the invitation of the government. During the five-day mission, Pillay will meet President Robert Mugabe, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, ministers of  Foreign Affairs, Justice and other relevant authorities, as well as the Chief Justice, Speaker of  Parliament, President of  Senate and Thematic Committee of Human Rights.

Pillay will also meet with the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission and members of civil society in the country. The High Commissioner is considering a number of field visits within and outside Harare, including to the Marange diamond fields. During these visits, she will also meet local communities and civil society members in the area to listen to their experiences and views.

Pillay’s visit would be very important, given Zimbabwe’s appalling human rights record. The visit would come at a time when the country is going through some national healing process, which has been ineffective,and also preparing for elections.

Her trip would also come against the background of a landmark ruling in her own country where the North Gauteng High Court on Tuesday ruled that authorities in South Africa can probe and prosecute not only high-level crimes committed in neighbouring Zimbabwe, but anywhere else in the world.

The Southern Africa Litigation Centre and the Zimbabwe Exiles Forum filed  the case in Pretoria seeking to force prosecutors to open an investigation, citing South Africa’s obligations to the International Criminal Court.

The two groups want South Africa to arrest and prosecute 17 Zimbabweans accused of torture in 2007 if they enter the country for holiday, shopping or medical treatment.

This means Pillay would arrive at the right time in Zimbabwe. So her work is cut out for her. What is now needed is for her to have the courage of her convictions and speak truth to power.

It can be done. Executive director of the UN Human Settlements Programme Annan Tibaijuka did it on Murambatsvina in 2005. She spoke her mind.
A number of countries in Africa have celebrated 50th anniversaries of Independence while the hopes and aspirations of many people  remain unfulfilled because their human rights were violated.


The devastation caused can be seen in the hardships, repression and violence endured by people across the continent.

Human rights violations by security and law enforcement forces continue to plague the region.

Pillay’s visit to Zimbabwe would bring the country under the spotlight, given its long record of human rights abuses, ranging from the Gukurahundi, Murambatsvina to the 2008 election killings. It would also draw attention to the controversial Marange diamond fields where human rights abuses have reportedly been committed despite government denials.

Mugabe is reportedly afraid of retiring partly because he is scared of being held accountable for human rights violations committed by his regime. According WikiLeaks disclosures, Mugabe’s fears and insecurity dramatically  increased after the arrest of former Liberation president Charles Taylor in 2006.

Taylor, whom Mugabe’s supporters are defending under the excuse that other human rights violators mainly in the West have not been punished, was two weeks ago convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his involvement in the Sierra Leone civil war from 1991 to 2001 in which he supplied rebels with arms in exchange for diamonds. He will be sentenced on May 30.

Zimbabwe last October came under scrutiny at the United Nations Human Rights Council’s periodic review in Geneva, Switzerland, before it was further grilled in March. Pillay has a perfect opportunity to further drive the message home.

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