Letters: The rights of children in the digital age

Protecting children from harm, abuse, and violence online is imperative.

The Day of the African Child (DAC) was first launched by the Assembly of Heads of State of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in 1991 and is commemorated annually on June 16.

The day is significant as it honors the 1976 student-led uprising in Soweto, South Africa, that resulted in the killing of numerous unarmed students and young protesters by the apartheid regime.

The day is, therefore, a reminder of the costly price these children paid for demanding respect for their fundamental rights to education and freedom.

Over the years, DAC has also served as an opportunity for all stakeholders and actors committed to the protection and promotion of children’s rights in Africa to come together, consolidate common goals, and address obstacles impeding the realisation of an Africa fit for its children.

In line with the theme, it is important to note that, Internet access and usage have been increasing globally.

As of May 2022, there were about 590 million internet users (43% internet penetration) in Africa.

These figures include children, who represent a third of all internet users in the world and are increasingly exposed to the virtual environment.

The African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACERWC) notes that the digital era has fundamentally changed the way in which children exercise and realise their rights.

Noting that the lives of children are mediated by the digital environment in ways that impact how they can enjoy their rights and how their rights may be improved or transgressed, it is clear that the effect of the digital environment on children needs to be considered in the context of rights set forth under the African Children’s Charter.

The relevant rights include not only children’s rights to protection from all forms of violence, but also their rights to participation and provision. In the absence of proper mechanisms of protection, children will be susceptible to greater risks of harm online.

A child acting in the online environment is not different from a child acting offline, and the same rights that children have offline must be protected online.

The overall objective of the DAC 2023 is to raise awareness about the promotion and protection of children’s rights in the digital environment and to encourage member states and other relevant stakeholders to make commitments towards the realisation of children’s rights in the digital environment.

It has now been widely accepted (and rightly so) that protecting children from harm, abuse, and violence online is imperative.

As an organisation that is working on natural resource governance and environmental justice, we have also realised the importance of empowering children and young people to be active digital rights holders in calling for good natural resource and environmental governance.

Education through environmental clubs is one of the strategies we are utilising to raise awareness, engage with duty bearers, and access remedies using digital technologies, our Envirobot being one of them. - Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association

The erosion of democracy in Zimbabwe 

On May 31, President Emmerson Mnangagwa finally proclaimed the election date for the 2023 harmonised general elections in Zimbabwe after concerted pressure from the opposition and other pressure groups.

That date will now be August 23, 2023. On that same day, Zanu PF MPs employed the tyranny of their numberS and passed a sweeping and authoritarian piece of legislation called the Criminal Law Code Amendment Bill, more popularly known as the ‘Patriotic Bill’.

This new piece of legislation introduces sweeping measures which go against the very nature and character of a democratic society.

Put into context, Clause 2 of the Bill contains a new insertion which provides that ‘AAny citizen or permanent resident of Zimbabwe who, within or outside Zimbabwe, intentionally partakes in any meeting, whose objector one of whose objects the accused knows, or has reasonable grounds for believing involves the consideration of or the planning for the implementation or enlargement of sanctions a trade boycott against Zimbabwe (whether those sanctions or that boycott is untargeted or targets any individual or official, or class of individuals or officials), but whose effects indiscriminately affect the people of Zimbabwe as a whole, or any substantial section thereof, shall be guilty of wilfully damaging the sovereignty and national interest of Zimbabwe…’

The bill makes it unlawful to communicate or attend meetings organised by “foreign agents” and to participate in any activity that “goes against Zimbabwe”.

Put into context, the bill effectively makes it unlawful to criticise the Zimbabwean government, and this dangerous piece of legislation will inevitably be used as a tool of oppression against the opposition and any other critic of the Zimbabwean government, especially ahead of crucial elections to be held on August 23.

Every single individual who claims to be a proponent of democratic values should condemn and reject the Patriotic Bill with the contempt it deserves, not only in southern Africa but throughout Africa and the entire international community.

The bill is the latest step sanctioned by the Zanu PF regime in an effort to plunge Zimbabwe into complete autocracy.

At this juncture, it becomes imperative to highlight that the change in leadership within Zanu PF, which saw Emmerson Mnangagwa wrestle the instruments of power away from the late Robert Mugabe in 2017 did nothing to rescue Zimbabwe from autocracy and set the country on an upward political and economic trajectory.

On the contrary, it is becoming glaringly clear that the Mnangagwa regime is similar in content and character to the Mugabe administration, and is perhaps even worse in light of the passing of oppressive legislative instruments such as the Patriotic Bill.

It has become prudent that bodies such as Sadc and the African Union (AU) to intervene in this gross violation of democratic values in Zimbabwe and have a clear and unequivocal position of condemnation on it.

The Sadc  treaty signed and adopted in 1992 in Windhoek is unequivocal on the obligation placed on member states, like Zimbabwe, to uphold democratic values and human rights. Article 4 (c) of the treaty places an inherent obligation on members to uphold the principles of ‘human rights, democracy and the rule of law’.

Equally so, Article 4 of the AU Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance, which Zimbabwe is a state party to, places an obligation on members to promote “The principles of the rule of law and human rights”.

It, therefore, becomes clear that by passing the Patriotic Bill, Zimbabwe is in stark contravention of these respective Sadc and AU statutes.

Sadc and the AU must therefore come out unequivocal and take a strong stance against the Zimbabwean government for this blatant contravention.

 There must be zero tolerance for autocratic regimes in Africa. We stand with the people of Zimbabwe.

  • *Maximalliant T Katjimune is the deputy chief whip of the PDM parliamentary caucus in Namibia’s  National Assembly and shadow minister for international relations and cooperation

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