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Violence perpetrators must pay for 2008 abuses

Violence perpetrators must pay for 2008 abuses

Thursday, 04 August 2011 17:33

By Arnold Tsunga

ZIMBABWE achieved its Independence in 1980 after a brutal war during which 
widespread and serious human rights atrocities were committed. The new Prime 
Minister, Robert Mugabe, called for reconciliation and forgiveness and no 
one was prosecuted for the atrocities.

A few years later, Mugabe’s government was involved in gross human rights 
violations during the Gukurahundi campaign in Matabeleland and Midlands 
Provinces, during which about 20 000 people are believed to have been 
killed. In 1987, a Unity Accord was signed between the ruling Zimbabwe 
African National Union Patriotic Front (Zanu PF) and the opposition Zimbabwe 
African People’s Union (Zapu), bringing an end to the violence. Once again, 
the government called for reconciliation and national healing and no one was 
prosecuted for these extra-judicial killings and enforced disappearances.

But the cycle of violence did not end. Zimbabwe has experienced spikes in 
organised violence and torture, particularly around elections. It has become 
obvious that Zanu PF uses targeted organised violence and torture against 
unarmed civilians as a primary method of power retention. After the March 
2008 elections that Mugabe lost to Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the 
Movement for Democratic Change (MDC-M), the country saw an escalation in 
orchestrated violence with reports showing that hundreds of unarmed 
civilians were extra-judicially killed while some disappeared as Zanu PF 
tried desperately to cling to power.

Despite the fact that the election violence was highly publicised, no 
meaningful prosecutions or investigations have occurred domestically to an 
uncooperative government. Impunity has been a central feature accompanying 
the organised violence and torture against unarmed civilians. It is 
therefore critical that any process towards transitional justice and 
national healing is predicated on an unequivocal goal of breaking the cycle 
of impunity rather than letting “bygones be bygones”.

After the March 2008 elections, Zanu PF either directly ordered or, at a 
minimum, allowed groups of Zanu PF youths and political members, acting on 
the orders of the military, to commit crimes against members of the MDC and 
other opposition political parties.

Between 200 and 500 unarmed civilians perished as a result of the execution 
of this policy of politically motivated and targeted killings. Because of 
the involvement of the state apparatus in the targeted executions, no 
prosecutions or meaningful investigations have been recorded. Impunity 

For the purposes of effective transitional justice and national healing, it 
is important that investigations into these killings are conducted promptly 
to ensure that “as much evidence as possible is obtained that otherwise 
might degrade or be destroyed in the intervening period”.

The investigations need to obtain as much information as possible concerning 
the crimes, perpetrators and victims so as to be prepared for the widest 
possible range of future prosecutions, commissions or panels of inquiry. 
This is the only way in which the country can break the cycle of impunity 
that is so necessary for effective transitional justice and national 

Enforced disappearances were also a feature of the 2008 violence. In 
practice, the “act of enforced disappearance typically involves the 
abduction, arrest or detention of an individual — usually a perceived 
political opponent — by members of a state-sponsored military group, and a 
deliberate denial by authorities of any knowledge of the victim’s arrest, 
whereabouts, or condition: the individual effectively vanishes.”

According to criminal law expert Wayne Jordash: “Enforced disappearances 
have become increasingly recognised as a crime throughout much of the world. 
It is considered a crime against humanity and can be prosecuted as one at 
the International Criminal Court”.

Many human rights groups have evidence that suggests that supporters of the 
MDC were routinely abducted, detained and tortured by individuals associated 
with Zanu PF political structures in 2008. In this context, any process of 
transitional justice and national healing in Zimbabwe must deal head on with 
the phenomenon of enforced disappearances so that a new state is built on a 
national value system that is intolerant of enforced disappearances.

The political, military and police involvement in the enforced 
disappearances and extra-judicial executions that were part of a widespread 
and systematic attack against a civilian population in Zimbabwe constitute a 
crime against humanity.

Human rights groups and communities are therefore encouraged during the 
documentation of these serious violations to identify the suspected 
perpetrators, their precise role in the commission of the crimes and 
attribute roles and responsibility to specific individuals, where 
appropriate. Those responsible for planning, ordering, instigating, aiding 
or abetting, or otherwise facilitating the crimes ought not to evade 

Senior officials can be punished for acts committed by their subordinates 
that they failed to prevent or punish through command responsibility. 
According to Jordash, command responsibility holds that just because crimes 
“were committed by a subordinate… (this).… does not relieve his superior of 
criminal responsibility if s/he knew or had reason to know that the 
subordinate was about to commit such acts or had done so and the superior 
failed to take the necessary and reasonable measures to prevent such acts or 
to punish the perpetrators.”

Jordash argues further that through the principle of joint criminal 
liability, the prosecution of individuals who act in furtherance of a common 
plan, design or purpose, which amounts to a crime in international law, is 
possible. The individuals can be found guilty of crimes, which emanate from 
acts committed in furtherance of this agreement.

Tsunga is the Director of the Africa Programme of the International 
Commission of Jurists. He is indebted to the research and information 
provided by Wayne Jordash — an international criminal law expert in the 
UK. — Openspace.


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