Jestina Mukoko, Zimbabwean human rights activist and Director of the Zimbabwe Peace Project, addresses the 4th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see below for full prepared remarks.
Jestina Mukoko: Good morning ladies and gentlemen. It gives me great pleasure to stand before you and address you this morning.
In the last three years, I hogged the limelight I think for the wrong reasons when I experienced my unfortunate ordeal at the hands of the state in Zimbabwe. I am a human rights activist working within the country and I am the National Director of the Zimbabwe Peace Project since 2007. When I took up this post I knew that working in the human rights sector was not easy but I never anticipated the ordeal that I eventually experienced at the end of my second year at the helm of the Zimbabwe Peace Project.
The Zimbabwe Peace Project monitors and documents incidents of political violence through a strong network of monitors who live in the communities for which they monitor and document. Being a nonprofit organization that is nonpartisan – as this is the prerequisite for producing reports of violence that are objective – ZPP produces a monthly monitoring report that states both perpetrators and victims of violence without fear or favor. In March 2008, Zimbabwe was due to have historic harmonized elections for the President, the Lower and Upper Houses, and also for local authorities, all set to be conducted in a single day; we had never done this before. Unlike all the other elections when the results would begin to filter at the end of polling, March 2008 was different. The results of the Lower and Upper Houses were released after about five days and over several days, while those of the President were withheld for five weeks. This was so, despite the fact that for the first time in Zimbabwe’s 28 years of independence, results of all of these elections were posted outside each and every polling station after polling. But the results could just not be reconciled for them to be released on time.
In that time, the period of five weeks, the country was plunged into chaos as mainly supporters of the opposition were hunted like they were some wild animal with a prized body part. There were gruesome acts of violence that my organization also reported in this period. After the presidential results were eventually released, Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the Movement for Democratic Change was reported to have won the election but fell short of reaching the 50% plus one level, which would allow him to form a government. And according to the law in Zimbabwe, there was going to be a second round of elections, with only the first and second winners taking part. The election was planned for June 27th of the same year. As the date drew closer, the violence also increased significantly and some of those targeted by this violence were our colleagues in civil society. In particular, an organization that works around elections – the Zimbabwe Election Support Network, whose offices and the home of its director were raided. As all this was happening, most human rights activists, including myself, were conscious of the possible risk of the work that we were doing, that we could be detained, and most of us would hop from friend to friend in terms of getting a place to sleep. But all this really was mainly targeting supporters of the opposition. The June 27th election essentially became a one-man race, when the leader of the first round pulled out citing violence that targeted his supporters.
After the election, which was dubbed a “sham” throughout the world, Zimbabwean political leaders across the political divide came to the negotiating table under the facilitation of former South African president Thabo Mbeki, a process [that] was guaranteed by both the continental bloc, the African Union, and the regional Southern African Development Community (SADC). On September 15th 2008, Zimbabwe made history as the former protagonists came together to sign the Global Political Agreement (GPA) which paved the way for the inclusive government which was consummated in February, 2009. After the GPA had been signed, the political rift in Zimbabwe grew even wider as the leaders would not agree on who should be in which ministry in the new government. As this was going on, there was a full sense of calm within which most of us in the human rights sector basked and thought the worst was over. It was in between the signing of the GPA and the inauguration of the inclusive government that I was abducted from my home at the crack of dawn on December the 3rd, by a group of six men and a woman – the number who entered my home – who claimed to be police officers as I noticed, and a few more outside as I was bundled into an unmarked vehicle destined for an unknown destination.
I was kept incommunicado for three weeks, in which time two more colleagues from my organization were also abducted. When I appeared from police cells, despite the fact that the police had denied any knowledge of my whereabouts and that they had also promised that they were going to take this as a kidnapping, when I appeared in their cells they didn’t inform my family that I was now in their cells. And when I appeared in court, I had a serious charge hanging over my head as I was accused of wanting to overthrow a constitutionally elected government. After that I spent a further 68 days in a maximum-security prison.
As I address this platform today, the talk of an election in Zimbabwe before 2011 is up, is gaining ground. The partners in the inclusive government, as well as the facilitator of the arrangement, South African President Jacob Zuma, have different views about the possibility of an election in 2012. ZANU-PF led by President Robert Mugabe insists that an election will happen whether or not the ongoing constitutional process is concluded. The party also argues that the inclusive government has become dysfunctional. This was also their argument in the whole of 2011. The Movement for Democratic Change, led by Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai on the other hand, believes that an election can only take place when a new constitution is in place and some significant reforms elaborated in the Global Political Agreement are implemented. They believe that, unless this happens, Zimbabwe will not see a free, fair and nonviolent election. The facilitator, on the other hand, has led a process which resulted in a roadmap to elections. Most people are of the opinion that Zimbabwe finds itself in a power-sharing agreement because of the flawed election in 2008 and that most believe can only be straightened by electoral and other institutional reforms that would guarantee not just free, fair, but also nonviolent elections. If however an election takes place in the current environment, as one political party insists, there is more likely to be more violence than was witnessed in the run-up to the June elections in 2008. The reason for this thinking is that there is a lot at stake for the parties considering that both parties seem to have become impatient with this negotiated settlement. [As] ZANU-PF is the liberation party for the 20 years before the inclusive government kicked in, they had done things on their own and they want to revert to that same situation. On the other hand, the other partners in the government have also tasted the comfort of governing; there is no doubt they would also want to go at it alone. What this means is that the stakes of the elections are high.
On the other hand ZANU-PF is in a quandary as its leader and candidate in the next election, President Robert Mugabe, just turned 88 and the issue at hand is that he feels that no one else within his party can stand up to Morgan Tsvangirai and win. Since the situation demonstrates that this could be a do-or-die contest, with hindsight, it means that levels of political violence will increase as citizens are whipped to vote in a particular manner. At the ZANU-PF last people’s conference held in December 2011, the party resolved, among many resolutions, to monitor non-governmental organizations’ activities. It goes without saying that this is not just any NGO that is going to be monitored, but those that have been labeled “change agenda agents.” Chances are that NGOs and their leaders will face the heavy hand of the state as there is a thin line between many state institutions and that political party. The situation on the ground is tense as most victims of the previous election still have not healed from the wounds of the last election. But already the talk of an election and the threat of more serious violence is real. In most communities it is obvious that campaigning has been going on for a long time, since the talk of elections last year. For most of the people, just a reminder of the past atrocities by their former perpetrators – many of whom still walk the streets free – is enough to make them afraid. And even in my case, the court ruled that my rights had been violated. But the people who abducted me and tortured me are still walking scot-free.
The monitoring of civil society organizations in the human rights sector is gaining momentum after the resolution adopted last year and already in one province of the country, 29 organizations – including the Zimbabwe Peace Project – have been banned from operating by the provincial governor, although he does not have a regulating authority over NGOs. As an organization that monitors and documents incidents of political violence, we are recognizing that the levels have gone down in December 2011 and January 2012. But if the conversation around elections gathers momentum, levels are likely to slow.
The revolutions in the Middle East and to the North of our continent, have been viewed in different ways in my country. While the revolutions might have been an inspiration, the situation in Zimbabwe is different from what we saw happening in those parts of the world. Zimbabweans are not ready for such revolutions and, besides, the heavy hand of the state would crash such occurrences. The government has invested so much in methods that enable it to attack demonstrators. One lesson is from March 11th, 2007 when civilians and political leaders were detained and tortured in police cells for wanting to go to a prayer meeting. The images of violence that Zimbabweans have seen too often result in most people not wanting to cross the line, as they are aware of what has befallen prominent people.
Since the consummation of the inclusive government, there have been some improvements that have been noted in the country. The economy was stabilized, resulting in the functioning of the education and health delivery system. Prior to that, most schools were not functioning as teachers did not have enough money to be able to go to school. Well, the problem might be that of unemployment, but most Zimbabweans can now buy their food in local shops as compared to the time that citizens would travel to neighboring countries to buy basic commodities like milk and cooking oil. The country has also seen, although limited, reforms in the media as more newspapers have been licensed. However reforms in the electronic media are still to be realized. The government also led the process of establishing commissions responsible for the media, elections, human rights and anti-corruption. The Human Rights Commission months later, or I should say years later, has still not started work as the enabling act is still to be passed by Parliament. The Commissions were appointed in a different manner this time around. After their interviews – for the first time – were conducted where the public was free to attend, the process of drafting a new constitution, though it has been haunted by delays, is also something that Zimbabweans see as coming out of the inclusive government. Even civil society organizations, initially enjoyed an opening up of operating space, which unfortunately is now closing.
I am keen to see Zimbabwe put an end to extrajudicial killings of those who hold different views and opinions. Zimbabwe needs to also do away with enforced disappearances and the torture of those who are unfortunate to be in such situations. It is my hope that the Minister of Justice meant it and that he will have the political will to encourage Zimbabwe to ratify the Convention Against Torture. Violence has left many people maimed. In some, especially women, also experienced sexual assault. In the last election, some people had property that they had acquired over many years being destroyed or looted.
As I talk, the election gathers momentum, for the election to be free and fair, Zimbabweans need to exercise their freedom of assembly, expression and association, and most importantly the freedom to exercise their right to vote. What has been seen in the past is that the whole system of elections is set up in such a way that some people are disenfranchised. Those in the security sector are forced to vote in front of their superiors. Some known and suspected opposition supporters are forced to declare illiteracy and in some instances, some lose their rights by being forced to flee their homes as violence becomes unbearable. As a human rights activist who has experienced violence in the past, I am also keen to see Zimbabwe is carding the abuse of activists by labeling them in the unnecessary surveillance which is meant to harass those who are keen to empower Zimbabweans with information related to their rights. The system in Zimbabwe needs to refrain from unlawful detention and the fact that when detainees have been tortured, they prevent them from accessing medical treatment; twice my bid to get urgent medical attention was thwarted by the government.
While a lot of Zimbabweans could be using the internet at the moment and other social media, there is a law that allows the government to intercept communications. There has been a case involving a citizen who posted something on Facebook and that has come before the courts. The majority of Zimbabweans who reside in rural areas might have a mobile phone but connectivity might be erratic, resulting in them failing to access [the] internet. When I was abducted and accused of wanting to overthrow a constitutionally elected government, the pressure that emanated from within the country and also from the international community I believe helped my cause. There was a lot of noise, as many local and international organizations and governments demanded first that the state release me alive and that they finalize my case in the course. As a result, when I challenged my abduction, torture and the fact that I was not protected by the law, the Supreme Court – sitting as the Constitutional Court in Zimbabwe – unanimously agreed that my rights had been violated by the state and I was granted a permanent stay of criminal prosecution.
The numerous awards that were awarded to me and my organization also helped to put the spotlight on my ordeal and I have been humbled by the manner that I have been honored, first by the city of Weimar in Germany, who awarded me the Human Rights Prize in 2009, then the US Secretary of State in March 2010 awarded me the International Women of Courage Award. And in March 2011, the French government accepted me to the Legion of Honor, which is an honor that was initiated during Napoleon’s time. While I believe that pressure helped in my situation, situations in Zimbabwe need to be considered individually as in some situations, international pressure actually spoils the broth.