Academic journal article Yale Human Rights and Development Law Journal

The Zimbabwean Human Rights Crisis: A Collaborative Approach to International Advocacy

Academic journal article Yale Human Rights and Development Law Journal

The Zimbabwean Human Rights Crisis: A Collaborative Approach to International Advocacy

Article excerpt

Over the past several years, a serious human rights crisis has developed in Zimbabwe, where President Robert Mugabe employs repressive measures to cling to power. Civil society and human rights groups in Zimbabwe are among those who have come under attack by the government, and they face an extremely difficult challenge in bringing about positive change in the country. This article describes the development of the current crisis in Zimbabwe, focusing on the problems faced by local activists and organizations that seek to promote greater respect for human rights. It further discusses one recent initiative launched by the U.S.-based organization Human Rights First, which organized a consultative meeting of regional civil society groups in August 2003. The article addresses the role that can and should be played by international civil society organizations, which must be sensitive to the contextual dynamics particular to the Zimbabwean crisis and to the region. If they are to be in any way effective, such organizations must act in support of local actors and stronger regional networks.

I. INTRODUCTION

A major human rights and humanitarian crisis has been developing in Zimbabwe for the past several years and has reached a critical juncture. Relative to other trouble-spots in Africa, the nature and dimensions of the crisis in Zimbabwe are simple. There are no rebel forces fighting for control of resources or territory, no secessionist movements seeking to break away, no religious conflicts, and no collapse of state institutions. Rather, Zimbabwe is a classic case of an authoritarian government clinging to power and using whatever methods it considers necessary to ensure its continued survival.

Over the past five decades, a sophisticated language and legal structure have developed to deal precisely with governments abusing their people and invoking the protection of state sovereignty to prevent external criticism or interference. The language of human rights, and the raft of national, regional and international human rights standards that have been adopted as law, provide a framework for addressing such abuses of power and seeking to prevent their repetition.

Yet despite the arsenal of laws, courts, monitoring mechanisms, regional and international agreements, and institutions wielding a range of carrots and sticks, nothing has yet moved the Zimbabwean government to end the violence and repression that it is inflicting upon its people. When it is accused of violating basic rights, it simply dismisses such allegations as part of a western neo-colonial conspiracy designed to destabilize the government and reassert white (British) control. The political opposition is attacked by the government as a stooge of the West and disgruntled white farmers, and civil society groups are branded as agents of the opposition and western organizations. Incredible as these claims appear to the population of Zimbabwe and to external analysts monitoring the crisis, they have been remarkably effective in muddying the waters and preventing condemnation and sanctions at a regional level.

The challenge faced by human rights and civil society groups, both within Zimbabwe and externally, is therefore a difficult one, despite the seeming simplicity of the crisis itself. This article sets out that challenge, describing both the environment within Zimbabwe and the problems faced by local activists and organizations seeking to promote greater respect for human rights. Describing in particular one recent initiative launched by the U.S.-based organization Human Rights First, it further addresses the role that can and should be played by international civil society organizations, which must be sensitive to the contextual dynamics particular to the Zimbabwean crisis and to the region. If they are to be in any way effective, such organizations must act in support of local actors and stronger regional networks.

II. …

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