I was shocked by the testimonies of victims who alleged they had been raped and sexually assaulted by military and police elements in the context of the protests. The victims of these crimes explained they were assaulted in their homes, in many cases at night, and felt this was being used as a tactic to cause pain and fear among those linked to leaders of protests or to cause general fear among the population. I also heard of massive arbitrary arrests, and cases of abduction and torture of protestors. During these events children who were caught in the middle of the protests or who wanted to actively participate in them were prevented from doing so.
I was also informed of cases of internet shutdown that took place during the crackdown of protests further limiting the right to peacefully assembly. I strongly believe that network disruptions are in clear violation of international law and cannot be justified under any circumstances. Network shutdown orders often lack a legal basis and these events in Zimbabwe were no exception. In this sense, I applaud the High Court’s decision ruling that the Minister of State responsible for national security in the President’s Office did not have the authority to issue any directives in terms of the Interception of Communications Act.
Although, the events of January 2019 affected most of the country, I would like to recognize efforts made in Bulawayo to address this situation, among other issues, when the President met with a large and diverse representation of the Matabeleland Collective. A set of follow up action points was reached with the Matebeleland Collective and I call on the Government to closely monitor the implementation of all items discussed, in particular, action point 14.
In another instance, in Hwange, I met with spouses of workers of the Hwange Colliery, who initiated protests on behalf of their husbands due to unpaid salaries of almost 5 years. Since the workers feared victimisation from the employer which could result in dismissal from work, a group of women decided to make the situation visible by protesting peacefully and camping at the company’s premises to demand their husbands’ due payments. The women indicated that they have endured very difficult moments, not only as a result of the hardships that they were confronted with in their homes but also because of pressure and threats from anonymous sources possibly linked to the company.
The company took the women to court on civil and criminal charges for trespassing on the company’s premises. Although the cases were dismissed from the courts, the women decided to put an end to the protests as they felt were not being listened to, while they had suffered too much hardship. The role that non-State actors also play in creating an environment of fear, to silence the voice of the most desperate, is a matter of concern, which warrants attention by state authorities in order to prevent and respond to such acts.
Although there are areas of concern I am encouraged that the Government took steps to investigate the crackdown of the protests of 1 August 2018, which took place after the harmonised national elections, when demonstrators took to the streets of Harare demanding the immediate release of the election results. On this occasion, what started out as a peaceful protest turned into chaos and included violent indiscriminate acts. As a result of these protests at least six persons were killed and many others tortured and injured.
In order to investigate these events, through Statutory Instrument 181 of 2018, a Commission of Inquiry, now known as the Motlanthe Commission, was appointed and a final report has been presented with recommendations. These include recommendations such as the need to compensate the losses and damages caused, including support and school fees for the children of the deceased; the need to promote political tolerance, as well as responsible and accountable leadership and citizenry; the need to adopt electoral reforms to enhance the transparent and expeditious announcement of election results; the need to build the capacity of law enforcement authorities; the need for accountability in respect of the alleged perpetrators and the need for nation building and reconciliation including an initiative for multi-party dialogue and cooperation.
During my meeting with the Minister of Justice, I was informed that as a response to the recommendations of the Montlanthe Commission, authorities have continued to undertake legislative and administrative measures to ensure that recommendations are implemented. For example, in March 2019, an Inter-Ministerial Taskforce was established to lead political, electoral and legislative reforms. I hope to get additional information on the work of the taskforce and the implementation of the recommendations.
I commend the Government for these efforts and encourage it to follow this good practice in relation to other such incidents which have occurred.
To conclude, I would like to reiterate that the right to peacefully assemble is a basic pillar in any democracy and should not be negated and feared. On the contrary, it should be allowed and encouraged as its intrinsic value is to allow individuals and groups to express aspirations and concerns publicly. It is in the interests of the State to allow public and peaceful assemblies as a “release valve” in order to avoid recourse to other means of dissent and disagreement that are not desirable and can be harmful to society as a whole. It is a right and one that the State has the obligation to enable and protect.
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