Security reforms: Elephant in the room

Reforming Zimbabwe’s security sector is key to ensuring that the upcoming general elections are credible, free and fair.

By Human Rights Watch

The elections could usher in a government that would introduce and implement far-reaching reforms in the security sector and in other sectors.

The current unity government has, for various reasons, failed to advance such important reforms, many of which have a huge bearing on the human rights situation in the country, especially around elections.

The new constitution, signed into law by President Robert Mugabe on May 22 2013 following a March 16 referendum and the approval by the Zimbabwe parliament, replaces the 1979 Lancaster House Constitution.

The new constitution may prove beneficial to the electoral process as it prohibits any changes to the electoral law once elections have been called.

Also, it restores citizenship and voting rights to those born in Zimbabwe to a parent or parents with citizenship of another Southern African Development Community (Sadc) country, but resident in Zimbabwe.

While very important, the new constitution is only one of the reforms required for an environment conducive for credible elections.

More crucial for the elections — and the government that comes to power — will be the role played by Zimbabwe’s state security forces, particularly the army, police, and the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO).

The security forces have a long history of partisanship on behalf of Mugabe and Zanu PF, one of the parties in the current unity government and the former ruling party. Since Independence in 1980, the army, police and CIO have operated within a system that has allowed elements within their ranks to arrest, torture and kill perceived opponents with impunity.

As such, reforming the security sector is essential in ensuring that elections due by October 29 2013, are credible, free and fair. There are expectations that the elections would usher in a democratically-elected government with interest in addressing the country’s longstanding and serious human rights issues.

But as things stand, the chances of having free, fair and credible elections are slim, particularly given the stalled security sector reforms and reforms in other sectors.

This report is based on research conducted by Human Rights Watch (HRW) in Zimbabwe’s Harare, Bulawayo, the Midlands, Manicaland, Mashonaland East, Central and West provinces in November and December 2012, and in February this year.

The report illustrates how the partisanship of the security forces’ leadership has translated into abuses by these forces against the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) formations and civil society organisations across the country and in political interference.

HRW interviewed over 50 victims of abuses, legislators, journalists, members of the army and police, lawyers, and rights activists. We also reviewed Zimbabwe’s Lancaster House constitution and the new constitution, various laws and regulations, police reports, newspaper accounts and reports by local human rights organisations.

There is an urgent need, ahead of the elections, for Zimbabwe’s security forces to be drastically reformed, to create a political environment conducive for holding non-violent and credible elections. Should the security forces fail to adopt a professional, independent and non-partisan role during elections, the new constitution and other recent reforms including the setting up of a new Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (Zec) and the licencing of private daily papers, may be insufficient to deliver the elections needed to put Zimbabwe on a democratic and rights-respecting track.

Institutional reforms have not been introduced by the power-sharing government consisting of Zanu PF and the two formations of the MDC. Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai heads the larger formation of the two MDC parties.

The unity government was established under the 2008 Global Political Agreement (GPA), which was underwritten by Sadc and the African Union (AU). It was intended to make institutional and legal reforms to create a conducive environment for the holding of free and fair elections.

However, the outcome of the GPA was a Zanu PF-dominated government with significantly more power than the MDC parties.

Zanu PF has used its dominance to frustrate or block reform efforts.
Zimbabwe’s security forces, notably the military, have, for several years, interfered in the nation’s political and electoral affairs in ways that have adversely affected the ability of Zimbabwean citizens to vote freely.

This was particularly evident during the 2008 elections where the army played a major role in supporting widespread and systematic abuses that led to the killing of up to 200 people, the beating and torture of 5 000 more, and the displacement of about 36 000 people. Since then, the leadership of the military, police and CIO, all appointed by Mugabe, remain unchanged, as have their clear, public and vocal support for Mugabe and Zanu PF.

The partisanship of the security forces’ commanders has translated into abuses by these forces against MDC members and supporters, and civil society organisations. Although the Lancaster House and the new constitutions, as well as various laws, require neutrality and impartiality from the security forces, no effort has been made to enforce them.

Beyond the open endorsement of Zanu PF, the security forces have been deployed across the country where they have intimidated, beat and committed other abuses against Zimbabweans perceived to be supporting the MDC or critical of Zanu PF officials in government.

No members of the security forces are known to have been disciplined or prosecuted for acting in a partisan manner or committing criminal offences against the MDC and its supporters. Concerns about the role of the security forces extend not only to situations prior to election day and the voting itself, but to the critical post-elections period.

Instructively, the CIO has no legislative framework guiding its institutional set-up and operations. It is a department within the President’s Office — the Department for State Security — with a minister responsible for it and a director-general running. Its operations are shrouded in secrecy.

The CIO has operated more as the intelligence arm of the Zanu PF and has been implicated in serious human rights abuses against Zanu PF’s political opponents.

The unity government, with support from Sadc and the African Union, should urgently take steps to ensure the political neutrality of the security forces, namely by investigating and prosecuting alleged abuses by security force personnel, publicly directing the leadership of the security forces to carry out their responsibilities in a professional and impartial manner, and appropriately punishing or prosecuting those who fail to do so.

Urgent reforms are also needed to increase the likelihood of credible, free and fair elections. These include electoral reforms to ensure the independence and enhance professionalism of Zec and an updated voters’ roll under Zec’s exclusive control.

Civil society groups, including human rights organisations, should be able to freely conduct voter education across the country. State media should give equal access to all political parties without bias or favour, and laws infringing on the right to freedom of expression should be amended or revoked.

Finally, there should prompt deployment of long-term domestic, regional and international election observers with unfettered access to all parts of the country.

Human Rights Watch is an international non-governmental organisation that conducts research and advocacy on human rights.