Human rights abuses ring alarm bells

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ZIMBABWE on Wednesday joined the global community in commemorating International Human Rights Day (December 10), set aside by the UN General Assembly in 1950 to bring to the attention “of the peoples of the world” the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as the common standard of achievement for all people and nations.

Candid Comment Stewart Chabwinja

A formidable impediment to the meaningful enjoyment of human rights remains torture — widely understood to be the intentional infliction of severe mental or physical pain or suffering by or with the consent of the state authorities, for a specific purpose. According to the UN, torture is often used to punish, obtain information or a confession, take revenge on a person or persons or create terror and fear within a population.

It is richly ironic that on such a day, never mind its low-key observance in Zimbabwe, there were media reports of 11 police officers filing an urgent High Court order for immediate release from the horrors of police detention where they alleged they were being systematically tortured by fellow officers.

The constables (lowest police rank) who had served sentences for contravening the Police Act were transferred to recruit training centre Morris Depot where they were being “subjected to assaults, humiliation, denied food, clothes and at times water”, according to their lawyers.

News of their ordeal must have elicited a wry taste-of-your-own-medicine reaction from an alienated public rather than sympathy, given cops are often accused of using inordinate instead of “minimum force” in upholding the law, and suppressing even constitutionally-guaranteed rights. Filthy police cells continue to constitute an abuse of human rights as they have been condemned as unfit for human habitation.

In its Rights Day statement, the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum echoed popular sentiment when it noted “there have been cases of torture, harassment and intimidation of citizens by state agents”, restricting the enjoyment of freedoms. It urged government to “professionalise the country’s police force and ensure it respects not just the laws of the land but also international human rights law”.

But major human rights abuses, especially torture, are not confined to Zimbabwe which incidentally is not among the 147 nations or so signatory to the 2004 United Nations Convention against Torture.

In the US, a senate report alleging the CIA carried out “brutal” and “ineffective” interrogations of al-Qaeda suspects in the years after the 9/11 attacks on the US has caused a storm.

The state has denied the charges, suggesting instead that information spies collected using ominously named “enhanced interrogation techniques” saved lives.

But in the US, unlike in Zimbabwe, the issue of human rights is freely debated in the interests of democracy and the righting of past wrongs. While the country’s new constitution has an expanded Bill of Rights, a lack of constitutionalism could render them theoretical.

For socio-economic crisis-hit Zimbabwe the following words from UN secretary-general Ban Ki Moon’s ring particularly true.

“Violations of human rights are more than personal tragedies. They are alarm bells that may warn of a much bigger crisis.”

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