THE decision by parliament on Tuesday night to rule out investigation of any human rights abuses that occurred before February 2009 will confirm Zimbabwe’s reputation as a state that has no regard for the protection of its citizens.
It was a vote for institutional impunity and deserves public repudiation. The Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission Bill went through its committee stage with only minor amendments. Many in the MDC formations wanted an open date for investigations by the commission. But in the end parliament agreed that the commission will only investigate cases that occurred as from February 13 2009 when the government of national unity was sworn in.
Justice minister Patrick Chinamasa said it was common practice in observing the rule of law that laws should not be applied in retrospect. He said there had been agreement between the parties on time limits. Which means that the thousands of people who lost relatives in the Gukurahundi atrocities or as recently as the 2008 killings will get no justice, at least in terms of this commission.
Although Chinamasa is right from a legal point of view, the principle that laws must not apply in retrospect must not be used to cover up atrocities like the ones perpetrated under President Robert Mugabe’s rule.
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, who recently visited Zimbabwe, made a workable proposal on what should be done.
“I welcome the fact that Zimbabwe has established a Human Rights Commission –– a type of national institution governed by a rigorous international set of standards –– and appointed its members in 2010,” Pillay said.
“The main obstruction to its progress is a dispute over its temporal limitation, ie whether or not it should cover historical events prior to 2009. My strong advice to the political leaders and parliamentarians has been that –– like most other Human Rights Commissions around the world — it should not become involved in historical investigations.”
Instead, Pillay suggested that while the commission should deal with the many pressing issues that face Zimbabwe today and in the future, and in particular all the human rights issues surrounding the forthcoming elections, other means must be used to tackle past atrocities.
“I stress that this does not mean that past human rights violations such as the devastating large-scale killings and other violations in Matabeleland and Midlands in the 1980s, or the 2008 election violence should be swept under the carpet. Far from it. There should never be impunity for serious crimes, and justice is essential if peace and stability are to endure,” Pillay said.
She said previous abuses can always be investigated by other means, including setting up another body or bodies –– such as a Truth and Reconciliation Committee or a Commission of Inquiry –– to look at major human rights violations that took place in the past. It is critical to deal with past atrocities to ensure they are never repeated. Impunity must never be allowed to flourish under any circumstances. MPs must consult on such issues before making laws.
A British court, hearing an application for asylum in the UK by a Zimbabwean woman recently who had taken part in violence on the farms, ruled that she had participated in “crimes against humanity” as her actions were committed as part of a “widespread or systematic attack directed against a civilian population, intentionally causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or to mental or physical health”.
“These two farm invasions,” the court ruled, “were part of widespread systematic attacks against the civilian population of farmers and farm workers, carried out not just with the full knowledge of the regime but as a deliberate act of policy by it, with the intention of advancing its grip on power, suppressing opposition, and helping its supporters.”
This is impunity writ large. What is particularly shocking is that while we expect Zanu PF to try to cover up its barbaric human rights crimes, how do we explain the way the MDC parties behaved in all this? What will future generations make of their dereliction of duty?
What needs to be emphasised in all this is that whatever was said in parliament this week, it is not the business of MPs to forgive and forget. It is the people of Zimbabwe and those directly affected by the terrible past events who will ultimately decide on any forgiveness that can be dispensed. While Zanu PF may think it got away with impunity by ring-fencing certain events through this negotiated commission, the day of reckoning is yet to come.