Repeal draconic laws, UN human rights chief Pillay urges Zim government

The United Nations' Navanethem Pillay has urged the Zimbabwean government to repeal legislation that is misused by some prosecutors to block release after bail has been granted without providing a reason for this action.

The United Nations has urged the Zimbabwean government to repeal legislation that is misused by some prosecutors to block release after bail has been granted without providing a reason for their action.

The appeal was made by UN human rights chief Navanethem Pillay at the end of her five day visit to Zimbabwe.

“Human rights defenders, journalists and political activists have been arrested and charged on a regular basis. Even councillors and members of parliament from other political parties have been arrested and charged under Section 33 of the Criminal Code [a provision dealing with ‘insulting or undermining the authority of the president’],” said Pillay.

Pillay said the legislation should be amended to protect against its frequent misuse for political purposes, especially during the run-up to elections.

She added that the corrosive effect of these laws – and of other forms of past and current, albeit lower level, harassment – alongside intimidation of political party activists, including restrictions on their right to freedom of assembly, is deeply worrying.

“In my meetings with the government, I have drawn attention to various pieces of legislation that infringe on journalists’ right to freedom of expression, such as the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, the Broadcasting Services Act and the Public Order and Security Act. I believe all three needs to be amended to ensure that they are brought in line with international human rights laws and standards,” Pillay added.

The UN chief said many people she has spoken to have expressed great concern about the perceived strong political bias of the state-run broadcast media, and the refusal of the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe to grant licenses to private radio and TV stations, thereby preserving a politicised monopoly, which holds particular sway in rural areas.

“Opening up the market to non-state TV and radio stations might help to stimulate more balanced and better quality news by providing competition,” said Pillay.

Althought Pillay welcomed the fact that Zimbabwe has established a Human Rights Commission, which she described as “a type of national institution governed by a rigorous international set of standards”, she said she “ deeply regretted the fact that the bill that would enable it to function properly is currently still stuck in Parliament”.

Pillay’s comments at a time when some media companies are systematically denigrating human rights defenders who are simply going about their job of trying to help promote and protect the human rights of ordinary Zimbabweans.

A vibrant civil society is a crucial part of any democratic society’s development, in all spheres including human rights, and it should be strongly supported even if some of its messages make uncomfortable reading for those in authority.

There can be no justification for violence, harassment or stigmatization. And criminalization of any group because of their sexual orientation can lead to impediments to their accessing basic services – in other words result in clear-cut discrimination – including treatment for HIV. Sexual relations between consenting adults is not a matter for the courts.

Zimbabwe should be one of the most prosperous and highly developed countries on the African continent. Instead, it is beset by a difficult political climate, drought, sanctions, and an unfortunate history of human rights violations and impunity for those who have committed them.