The situation, including polarisation of opinion and growing tensions across the political divide, puts Pillay in dilemma as she faces one of the toughest tests of her diplomatic savvy and skills.
Zimbabwe has a long record of grisly human rights abuses but Pillay has been confronted with different dossiers of information and accounts – ranging from efforts to whitewash the situation to horror stories.
Since her arrival on Sunday, the Zanu PF section of the coalition government, through Justice minister Patrick Chinamasa, has been trying to keep a tight leash on her to ensure she “hears, sees and speaks no evil”.
President Robert Mugabe’s officials and supporters have also been desperately trying to hijack Pillay’s mission and put a spin on her visit and the situation on the ground. The state media have been roped into the propaganda campaign to mislead the world about Zimbabwe’s human rights situation.
The state-controlled daily Herald, which together with other state media outlets operate as government and Zanu PF’s mouthpieces, yesterday for instance, had three front page stories, an editorial and a letter to the editor about human rights, in a clear agenda-setting move.
Chinamasa led the campaign of deception and was supported by Zanu PF groups and supporters, including the state-run media. “There is no state-sponsored violence, these are all lies….there are no torture chambers in Zimbabwe,” he said after emerging from a meeting with Pillay on Monday. Chinamasa also said there were “torture chambers” in Zimbabwe.
However, Chinamasa’s assertion contradicts well-documented evidence of human rights abuses in Zimabbwe stretching from the 1980s to date. Pillay’s five-day visit was expected to include a trip to Marange where the notorious military-controlled diamond base is situated, but instead her itinerary indicated she would pay two courtesy calls on President Robert Mugabe and possibly meet with the Joint Monitoring and Implementation Committee (Jomic) chairperson, and deliver a public lecture.
Pillay on Tuesday called on Zimbabwe to take steps to prevent a repeat of 2008 political violence in elections that are due next year after meeting Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai.
Pillay told reporters after the hour-long meeting she had asked Tsvangirai what progress Zimbabwe had made in establishing a human rights commission, which she said should start functioning ahead of the poll.
“I was able to raise many areas of concern from a human rights point of view, such as non-recurrence of violence that occurred in last elections and what steps are being taken to protect ordinary people from such violence,” Pillay said, showing she had rejected deception.
“The Prime Minister was very firm, forthright and convinced me of his commitment towards protecting human rights. His goal also is to have successful elections.”
Efforts to restrict access to an audience with Pillay angered civil society groups. A last minute venue change on Tuesday riled the groups and prompted them to boycott her meeting held at parliament.
In a joint statement issued by the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR), 36 civil society organisations and NGOs said they would not participate in a “stage-managed” event that gives a “superficial picture of the human rights situation in our country”.
However, Pillay later held a closed-door meeting with over 45 civil society representatives Dewa Mavhinga, a human rights lawyer and activist, said their briefing helped to counter attempts by government to distort the situation.
‘We were very clear as civil society leaders that the position by government was obviously false. We do have serious human rights challenges continuing in Zimbabwe,” he said.
“We had detailed presentations from various civil society groups focusing on what is happening, including political violence, violence against women, the non-implementation of a number of international human rights treaties that Zimbabwe has ratified.
“We still face challenges in the deregulation of NGO’s, food distribution on a partisan line and extreme polarisation of the Zimbabwe environment, particularly the militarisation of state institutions as we draw closer to an election.”
Deputy Justice minister Obert Gutu said Chinamasa’s briefing to Pillay “was littered with inaccuracies”. “He came up with a sugar-coated presentation that sought to portray Zimbabwe as a country that observes human rights, but the situation on the ground tells a different story,” he said.
Chinamsa last year in October and in March vigorously defended Zimbabwe’s human rights record the UN’s Universal Periodic Review sessions in Geneva, Switzerland.
However, human rights abuses, spanning Gukurahundi massacres in the 1980s to 2008 lections killings, featured prominently during discussions of his report.