THE Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission (ZHRC), which was set up in 2009 to investigate human rights abuses following the bloody 2008 elections, continues to be handicapped by lack of funding from government. This has seriously compromised its capacity to fulfil its crucial mandate given the paucity of Zimbabwe’s human rights record, including a culture of political violence and intimidation. Zimbabwe Independent reporter Herbert Moyo (HM) spoke to ZHRC chairperson Elasto Mugwadi (EM) last Wednesday on the operations and challenges facing the commission. Below are excerpts of the interview.
HM: Can you please provide an overview of the general state of human rights in the country?
EM: Generally the level of awareness of human rights issues among the public is growing, partly because of our awareness campaigns together with our development partners. We are also happy that government has been carrying out awareness campaigns and I am aware that Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa has visited many provinces speaking to people, educating them on their entitlements as enshrined in the constitution. But there have been a few complaints here and there. In June, there were parliamentary by-elections in several constituencies and the one which was of particular interest to us was the Hurungwe West constituency where an independent candidate lodged a complaint with us alleging that the playing field was not level.
His supporters were being intimidated and chased away from his rallies. His farm was invaded by members of the ruling party (Zanu PF). We investigated all that and we did report to Zec (Zimbabwe Electoral commission) and indicated that indeed we felt the playing field was not level because there was evidence of people who had been beaten up and hospitalised with broken arms. We did request the Commissioner-General of Police, Chihuri, to carry out investigations and I believe culprits were arrested and I understand they are out on bail.
HM: Do you have statistics on rights abuses that have been reported this year?
EM: We will make those available, but the most recent one is where it is alleged that someone was abducted from the sugar estates in Chiredzi in May. The relatives say they reported to the police and the abductors are known, but the police have not reacted. So we are going to be investigating this complaint ourselves and if it means liaising again with the Commissioner-General of Police, we will do that.
HM: Is there any progress in investigations into the disappearance of journalist-cum-human rights activist Itai Dzamara eight months after his abduction?
EM: We took up that case as soon as it was reported in the press. We approached the police too. The family also approached the courts which issued an order instructing the police to investigate and issue progress reports on a fortnightly basis. So we are satisfied that something is being done about that disappearance, although we are dissatisfied that it is taking too long to produce results.
HM: How would you describe your relations and interaction with the police, especially given that lately there have been a number of complaints about them failing to respect human rights in the discharge of their duties.
EM: Yes we talk to them about such issues. In fact, there is an understanding or an arrangement for us to continuously and constantly engage with the police through their training school. We give lectures to their recruits as they are being trained, but the other engagements relate to these complaints — once someone is said to have been beaten up and their dignity violated, we definitely engage the police advising them of our mandate to direct the Commissioner-General of Police to carry out investigations in such matters.
HM: You previously highlighted many challenges handicapping the commission, particularly lack of funding to discharge your mandate. Has that situation improved?
EM: No, there hasn’t been any improvement. While we were allocated US$556 000 for the current year for our operations, only US$221 000 has been released, which is less than half our allocation and that has crippled our operations especially where we have to discharge our mandate of monitoring prison and health institutions. We recruited 12 officers on October 1 2014, but there was no budget for these staffers and these are issues we brought to the parliamentary portfolio committee on justice to support us. We have since lost our executive secretary Jesta Charewa to the High Court because of poor conditions of service, especially the salary and other packages.
HM: What is your outlook for next year?
EM: Decentralisation remains the ideal but the reality is that we will continue to operate from two regional offices, one in Bulawayo which caters for the five southern provinces (Bulawayo, Midlands, Masvingo, Matabeleland North and South). There is also the northern office here in Harare catering for the five northern provinces (Harare, Mashonaland East, West, Central and Manicaland). We have been operating on a partnership agreement with the Danish Institute for Human Rights with funds from the Danish and Norwegian royal governments, the EU and also in partnership with the UNDP.
HM: What would be an ideal situation for you in terms of funding and personnel?
EM: We need an annual budget of US$7,5 million. That would then allow us to have a full staff complement of 120 officers. These would be adequate to cover the dual mandate of the commission which involves the conventional human rights issues and the administrative justice matters. This budget would also enable commissioners to have service vehicles because right now we have to hire them.
That is the ideal but the reality is that we had a staff of 55 at the beginning of the year but we have lost 16 of these, including the executive secretary. As it is we are actually violating our officers’ rights by overworking them without giving them overtime pay. And we are hoping that this time treasury will understand us because we want a peaceful 2018 election; we don’t want a repeat of 2008 (that year general elections were declared a sham after a bloody presidential run-off poll in which about 200 opposition supporters were killed as the security sector intervened to save President Robert Mugabe’s political career).