THE Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission (ZHRC), which was set up in 2009 under the inclusive government to investigate human rights abuses following the bloody 2008 elections, has been handicapped by lack of proper offices, vehicles, staff and financial support from government.
The Zimbabwe Independent reporter Herbert Moyo (HM) spoke to the new ZHRC chairperson Elasto Mugwadi (EM) (pictured) yesterday on the operations and challenges facing the commission. Mugwadi was sworn in on February 3, succeeding current National Assembly Speaker Jacob Mudenda. He is a lawyer by profession. Previously, he was the Zimbabwe’s chief immigration officer for 23 years and retired in 2007 to go into private law practice. Below are excerpts of the interview.
HM: What is the ZHRC mandate?
EM: The mandate of the ZHRC is quite broad and briefly includes the promotion, awareness and respect for human rights and freedoms at levels of society. We also have to monitor and assess the observance of human rights and freedoms by all and sundry.
HM: What is the ZHRC doing to ensure interaction with the general public and encouraging them to report human rights violations?
EM: We have so far carried out a few visits to areas of interest — the typical example being our recent visit to Chingwizi where the Tokwe-Mukorsi flood victims were re-settled and this is a typical case where we are going to make our findings public, but of course, we will refer our report to parliament through the Minister of Justice.
HM: That is one area which has generated a lot of local and international interest, what were your findings?
EM: We don’t want to pre-empt the findings because we are actually still in the process of assessment and this involves interfacing and interviewing a number of government ministries and related institutions; so until all the information has been compiled, it would be premature for me to say what our final assessment or findings will be.
HM: Apart from Chingwizi which other places or areas have you visited?
EM: One of the mandates that we have is to visit prisons and places of detention such as police cells and refugee camps with a view to assessing conditions there and make recommendations to the responsible minister.
We have so far visited Harare Prison and the Remand Centre and we have obviously condemned a number of issues we have observed as inhuman and we believe with resources permitting, attention is going to be given to areas we observed. We also receive complaints from members of the public. One of the major responsibilities we have assumed following the abolition of the office of the public protector is the aspect of protecting the public against the abuse of power and maladministration by public institutions.
HM: How national are your operations? Are you happy with the levels of visibility of your organisation?
EM: I’m not happy with the extent of our visibility as currently we are only operating from Harare and Bulawayo, but we are required to be present in every province and district. But we are trying our best to be visible. For example, we are having awareness radio talk shows and we are distributing pamphlets. We can be accessed on our website which we will soon make public.
HM: Is ZHRC any closer to achieving adequate financial independence and funding which your predecessors identified as a pre-condition for autonomy and successful execution of its mandate?
EM: We are not any closer to achieving financial independence and adequacy. The first former chairperson of ZHRC, Reg Austin had to throw in the towel because he got disgruntled and demotivated for lack of resources to operationalise the commission.
Ordinarily, ZHRC has to be funded by government to the tune of 70% and maybe 30% by donor agencies and development partners. But within the first four years of ZHRC, the commission had no budget to talk about and whatever activities it embarked on, it was on the basis of support from development partners. It was only at the end of 2013 that a paltry budget of US$2 million was extended to the commission and this has enabled the commission to recruit the secretariat and other support staff. We currently have 62% of the total staff levels and so I’m in a way happy that we got this funding and we are operational.
All I can say is that for the US$2 million that was allocated by government for this year, we have only had releases amounting to 15% of that figure which would be no more than US$300 000. In this instance, for the current year we had requested for US$7,5 million and we only got US$2 million. This does not in any way give us the independence that we want. We want to be independent financially, but as things stand, even the US$2 million is released through the Ministry of Justice and it comes in drips.
HM: In your opinion do you think that constitutional commissions should receive direct votes from the national budget?
EM: Yes, they should be receiving direct votes because it is a constitutional requirement in terms of Section 3 subsection 3 that provides that funds must be given to independent commissions. But ministries are making their own deductions which are not explained to commissions.
HM: Are you engaging in any partnerships with external multilateral organisations, if so please give us details on how they come in and how you plan to work with them?
EM: We relate very well with international partners. These include the United Nations Development Programme with whom we have project agreements and we have managed to do training of commissioners. We have also managed to participate in the Universal Periodic Review process in which the human rights situation in Zimbabwe is under spotlight by the UN body and reports have to be made in Geneva, Switzerland.
We are also obliged to give a separate report from government. We also have a memorandum of understanding with the Danish Institute of Human Rights to assist us in training activities and they are managing a basket fund which the EU, the Danish and Norwegian embassies are all contributing to and this fund has assisted in training of election monitoring, complaints handling and we set up a baseline survey which is conducted by two consultants who are busy are now compiling the final report by end of September. The survey will be indicative of what the human rights issues in the country are.
HM: How would you describe the ZHRC’s relationship with the major political parties?
EM: Once you are appointed you would have to resign from that party because commissioners should serve all without fear or favour. Commissioners are appointed for their independent mind. We relate to political parties through their representatives in parliament, there is actually a thematic committee on human rights and they are stakeholders in human rights issues; so we relate very well with them, but as one of our mandates is to ensure that the rule of law is observed, the democratic principles by all parties, we actually monitor not only national elections, but intra-party primary elections with a view to actually making comments should we observe any anomalies.
HM: Would you say the institution is free from interference and can investigate issues involving the political parties without fear or favour? Have you had to investigate the political parties’ human rights abuses?
EM: Not as such, but they were issues relating to the selection of candidates to represent political parties in certain constituencies, but at that time we did not have capacity, we did not have a budget, we did not have a secretariat. There were no resources for us even to visit political parties on the ground where primary elections were being held. Even as I speak, commissioners do not have personal issue vehicles they are supposed to have.
HM: In your opinion, as a way of fostering the human rights culture in Zimbabwe, is it not worthwhile to look at ways and means of bringing closure and reconciliation to contentious issues such as the Rhodesian atrocities, Gukurahundi and the post-2000 political violence?
EM: It would be prudent to bring closure and reconcile disgruntled parties and close any contentious issues, but as you well know this function is the responsibility of the National Peace and Reconciliation Commission which was established in terms of Section 251 of the constitution and its mandate is to deal with and ensure that past conflict, justice and healing are achieved. The ZHRC can only deal with human rights issues occurring after February 13 2009.
I believe in their wisdom, the political parties in the GNU felt that the commission would not have the capacity to handle all cases of previous human rights violations and the National Peace and Reconciliation Commission has to do this in 10 years and then it will fold up after ensuring that everybody would have reconciled with whoever they had differences with.