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Speculation over Zimbabwe’s invitation to UN

Speculation over Zimbabwe’s invitation to UN

17 May 2012 11:58 – Webster Zambara

A highly anticipated visit by human rights commissioner, Navi Pillay, to 
Zimbabwe could have some welcome consequences, writes Webster Zambara.

To the optimist, the confirmation that United Nations’ human rights 
commissioner Navi Pillay will officially visit Zimbabwe marks the beginning 
of a new era in a country that not only has a chequered human rights record, 
but also had a major falling-out with this UN office.

In October 2009 Manfred Nowak, then-UN special rapporteur on torture, cruel, 
inhumane or degrading treatment and punishment (appointed by the UN’s human 
rights council), was unable to conduct a fact-finding mission after he was 
deported from Zimbabwe.

The incident coincided with Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s claim that 
his Movement for Democratic Change had “disengaged” from President Robert 
Mugabe’s Zanu-PF – citing human rights violations and persistent breaches of 
the frosty power-sharing agreement between the parties.

Relations between Zimbabwe and the UN were also thorny in October last year 
when Mugabe cancelled a trip to Geneva in protest against the denial of 
visas to his wife, Grace, and six top aides for an International 
Telecommunications Union summit on information and technologies.

So, to hear that Zimbabwe has finally extended an invitation to Pillay is an 
interesting development. In fact, it was initially extended in February, but 
she could not make it then because of other commitments.

Inclusive government
There is no doubt that the human rights situation in Zimbabwe has improved 
considerably over the period of inclusive government, compared with the 
period leading to its formation.

Had Pillay visited in February, she would have found the situation was 
nearing normalcy. Diamond watchdog the Kimberley Process had approved gems 
from the Marange diamond fields and the European Union had removed certain 
individuals and companies from its sanctions list.

However, the political temperature has risen since then as a result of the 
pending constitutional referendum and prospects of elections to end the 
unity government’s barren “marriage of convenience”.

The timing of Pillay’s visit now is the subject of much speculation and 
certainly will not be devoid of controversy.

Minister of Justice and Legal Affairs Patrick Chinamasa, who  invited 
Pillay, could have spilled the beans. He was quoted by the state media as 
saying he had “warned her in advance that news of her coming to Zimbabwe 
would trigger negative stories to colour her appreciation of the situation”.

Crimes against humanity
His comments were made when he dismissed a recent North Gauteng High Court 
judgment that wanted Pretoria to investigate Zimbabwean officials for 
alleged “crimes against humanity”, charging that the landmark ruling brought 
the South African justice system “into disrepute”.

Chinamasa said the ruling was part of a regime-change agenda that aimed to 
put Zimbabwe in the spotlight ahead of Pillay’s visit.

Such pronouncements, sadly, can be viewed as an attempt to pre-empt the 
commissioner’s findings – a scenario that exposes Zanu-PF’s defensive 
position should they be unfavourable. It would seem that Chinamasa has drawn 
the battle lines too soon.

As human rights chief, Pillay has had her work cut out for her. After a 
visit to Syria in August last year she encouraged the UN Security Council to 
refer the country to the International Criminal Court for an investigation 
into, and possible prosecution of, individuals alleged to have committed 
crimes against humanity.

She followed her visit with a full international commission of inquiry to 
interview witnesses and gather evidence. Her report found that the Syrian 
army and security forces were guilty of crimes against humanity in their 
repression of a largely civilian population. These included murder, torture, 
rape and arbitrary detention.

Pillay’s visit
It was not surprising then when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad refuted the 
findings and claimed that the UN was not a credible organisation.

A similar pattern was followed when Pillay visited Palestine’s occupied 
territories. She ordered that the settlements “should be stopped altogether” 
because they violated human rights. She went on to establish an 
international committee to investigate the implications of the Israeli 
settlements on the civil, political, economic and cultural rights of the 
Palestinian people.

It was at this point that Israel refused to co-operate with the human rights 
council, barring the proposed fact-finding mission from entering the West 
Bank because of what Israel perceived as a pro-Palestinian bias by the UN.

During her five-day mission starting on May 20, the South African born 
Pillay will hold meetings with Mugabe, Tsvangirai, government ministers, the 
chief justice, the speaker of Parliament, the president of the Senate, the 
Zimbabwean Human Rights Commission and members of civil society.

Her itinerary also includes a possible visit to the Marange diamond fields. 
There could be no better time for a country preparing for a constitutional 
referendum and general elections to invite a high-profile commissioner such 
as Pillay.

Her visit could lead to further appropriate steps being taken to improve the 
human rights situation in Zimbabwe. In this regard, it could provide the 
crossover to a new and progressive human rights culture.

Webster Zambara is a senior project leader for Southern Africa at the 
Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, South Africa


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