Last Updated: Friday, 16 February 2018, 15:01 GMT

Annual Report on Human Rights 2008 - Zimbabwe

Publisher United Kingdom: Foreign and Commonwealth Office
Author United Kingdom Foreign and Commonwealth Office
Publication Date 26 March 2009
Cite as United Kingdom: Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Annual Report on Human Rights 2008 - Zimbabwe, 26 March 2009, available at: [accessed 18 February 2018]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.


For many years we have made clear our deep concern about human rights abuses in Zimbabwe – including torture; intimidation; arbitrary arrests and detentions; forced displacements; violence; repressive legislation; lack of freedom of expression, association and the press; and politicisation of food. We have seen a frightening deterioration of the situation in 2008, which has drawn criticism from across the international community

In 2008, Zimbabwe was dominated by presidential, senate, House of Assembly and local council elections and the political negotiations which followed. The elections themselves were characterised by intense violence, torture, abductions and murder perpetrated by agents of the state. Both rounds of elections were declared undemocratic by the international community. Overshadowing this is the continued economic and humanitarian crisis, including severe cholera outbreaks and widespread hunger, with five million people requiring food aid at the end of 2008.

Recent developments


The 2008 elections should have been an opportunity for Zimbabweans to make their voices heard, but instead they suffered a campaign of systematic violence and torture, which targeted Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) supporters, members of civil society and ordinary people. The figures are stark. From March 2008 more than 5,000 were victims of violence, at least 36,000 displaced, of which 17,000 were verified by the International Organisation for Migration and 190 politically motivated deaths were verified. The violence was perpetrated by state agents, often militia or so-called 'war veterans', but also the military and, to a lesser extent, police.

The second round

Following the March elections, and in the run-up to the second round of the presidential elections held on 27 June, the Zimbabwean government launched an unprecedented campaign of violence. The level and ferocity of the assaults, torture, beatings, abductions and murder surpassed even the levels of violence that had taken place during the 2000 and 2002 elections. Unusually, violence was targeted against former Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) supporting areas such as Mashonaland, as well as against traditional MDC strongholds. Torture camps were set up around the country, army commanders deployed and many ordinary Zimbabweans were caught up in the violence. Whole communities were called to all-night meetings where they were asked to prove their loyalty to ZANU-PF, and 'sell outs' were punished. Homes and livestock were burned and thousands displaced.

"Torture and violence are surging in Zimbabwe," said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. ZANU-PF members are setting up torture camps to systematically target, beat and torture people suspected of having voted for the MDC in last month's elections.

The violence attracted widespread condemnation. On 27 April, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, said that she was alarmed by reports of continuing violence in the aftermath of the Zimbabwe elections, and called for political leaders to restrain their supporters.

Harassment, raids, arrests and detention of MDC activists, journalists, NGOs and other human rights defenders continued. The MDC was prevented from campaigning and Morgan Tsvangirai was detained or obstructed on numerous occasions during the election period. On 4 June, the Foreign Secretary issued a statement calling for the release of Tsvangirai and other activists, who were detained while campaigning in Bulawayo.

In June, Tsvangirai withdrew from the presidential run-off as he felt he could not put people at risk of further violence, leaving Robert Mugabe as the only candidate. Many election observers were refused accreditation. Robert Mugabe was sworn in as President despite clear condemnation across the globe. Pan African Parliament monitors said that "the current atmosphere prevailing in the country did not give rise to the conduct of free, fair and credible elections". The SADC election observation mission stated that the election did not reflect the will of the people".

Interruption and suspension of humanitarian aid

NGOs voluntarily withdrew from the field 10-14 days before the election on 29 March. Resumption of activities was then prevented by the increasing post-election violence. The government of Zimbabwe announced on 4 June that it was suspending the field operations of most NGOs across the country. The ban was finally lifted on 29 August after widespread international criticism and pressure from the EU, UN and others. Humanitarian operations had been severely hampered for over 6 months. More than 1.5 million Zimbabweans had been denied life-saving support. Even after the formal lifting of the ban, NGOs and UN agencies continued to face severe challenges, such as suspension of electronic payments by the Reserve Bank, in gearing up their operations. Food registration was seriously delayed.

Chinese arms shipment

Against this difficult backdrop there were some successes in preventing further human rights abuses in Zimbabwe. A good example is the An Yue Jiang, a Chinese ship carrying arms supplies destined for Zimbabwe, which was ultimately prevented from delivering its cargo following action by trade unions, civil society organisations and diplomatic pressure from the international community.

Current concerns

Waiting for a voice – Zimbabwe after the elections

In the aftermath of the June elections, political negotiation began again, with the signing of an agreement for a power-sharing government between the two wings of the MDC and ZANU-PF on 15 September. In practice, no government has been formed and there remains clear distance between the parties. Although there had been an initial drop in the number of atrocities in July and August, violence, repression and harassment started to increase again from September, and economic and social rights continued to decline sharply.

Freedom of expression and the media

Freedom of speech and the press remain severely constricted, with repressive legislation in place, which inhibits operation of the independent media. The state has detained many journalists and others who are accused of criticising Mugabe or making statements that are prejudicial to the state'. Coverage of Mugabe's campaign dominated the broadcast and print media during the election period. The state media remains heavily biased in favour of the regime.

The UK is committed to taking what action it can to promote and protect freedom of expression in Zimbabwe. Our Embassy in Harare, along with EU colleagues, actively monitors and records violations against journalists and other defenders of freedom of expression and attends their court hearings.

Human rights defenders and freedom of association

Human rights defenders in Zimbabwe endured prolonged harassment and violence throughout 2008. Many organisations have had their offices raided, staff members interrogated and arrested, and had to either move offices or close down temporarily. They also have to cope with daily challenges of operating in Zimbabwe, such as lack of power, water and the inflation rate at record levels.

Protests have been repeatedly suppressed, often violently, and the rule of law disregarded. Despite the risks, human rights defenders have continued to hold demonstrations and to press for change. During a peaceful demonstration in Harare 14 members of Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA), a grassroots women's movement, were arrested and charged with 'public disorder'. They were granted bail, but the state appealed and so they remained in custody until 13 June, when most were released. Two leaders, Jenni Williams and Magodonga Mahlangu, were not released until 3 July. Charges were eventually dropped. The two leaders were arrested again in October and held for more than two weeks, with repeated delays in granting them an 'urgent' bail hearing. On both occasions, demonstrators were beaten by police.

Since October, brutality in repressing protests has increased. Police have used tear gas and baton sticks to disperse peaceful protests. For instance, after a peaceful demonstration of women and other civic groups outside political talks on 27 October, 35 people needed medical treatment for beatings, falls and tear gas inhalation, and five were admitted to hospital. ZANU-PF youth abducted 6 victims and took them to the ZANU-PF Provincial HQ where they were beaten. On 18 November, doctors and nurses protested against the deteriorating health sector. Riot police blocked them from marching and eventually dispersed them, with several protestors injured with baton sticks.

From October, more than 30 opposition members and human rights defenders were abducted by state agents and detained without access to lawyers for weeks. Some were eventually discovered at police stations by NGO lawyers searching for those missing. Many of those detained, including Zimbabwe Peace Project Director Jestina Mukoko, and a two-year-old child, have been beaten and tortured in detention. At the end of December, they remained in custody, despite the efforts of their lawyers.

The UK has worked with EU colleagues to develop a strategy for giving support to human rights defenders in Zimbabwe. Our Embassy in Harare observes protests and ensures evidence is recorded of the use of violence by the regime.


More than 36,000 were internally displaced in Zimbabwe during the election campaign of 2008. Farm invasions and takeovers, which affect the rights of thousands of farm workers as well as the owners, have continued throughout the year, becoming more frequent during and since the election period. In November, 120 households were ordered to demolish their 'illegal homes in Victoria Falls.

Women's and children's rights

Women and children were not spared the violence meted out by state agents in the electoral period. Children have been beaten, watched their parents be beaten in front of them, been coerced into participating in violence, been displaced and been separated from their parents and carers. Education has been severely disrupted in 2008. Teachers were specifically targeted in post-election violence and some schools were taken over as torture bases. The education system has not recovered. UNICEF reported that in October attendance rates for teachers stood at just 40 per cent.

There were at least three politically motivated rapes, and reports of many women being used as 'sex slaves' at ZANU-PF bases. Throughout the year, women protesters have been regularly beaten and arrested, even when pregnant or with small children. A growing number of cases of women and under-age girls are experiencing sexual violence at the hands of relatives. Women still lag behind men in political and decision-making positions and in education.The UK is funding a number of NGOs who are campaigning specifically for the rights of women and children to be upheld and working to address the growing issue of gender-related violence. DfID has also been supporting the development of a national gender strategy and mechanisms for more harmonised and predictable support for gender equality and women's empowerment.

An estimated three million Zimbabweans have left the country for economic or political reasons. This includes a number of children who have travelled to bordering countries in search of work and are at a higher risk of being trafficked into the sex trade or exploitative labour. Research conducted on child trafficking, funded by the UK, indicates that it is a growing problem.

Humanitarian conditions

  • Life expectancy is the lowest in the world.
  • Zimbabwe has the world's highest rate of orphans.
  • More than 2,500 people per week are dying from AIDSrelated illnesses.
  • Over 38,000 people have been affected by cholera, with 1,900 deaths.
  • Over 80 per cent of the population is unemployed.
  • Over five million people, nearly half the population, need food aid.
  • Health and education services are on the point of collapse.
  • Essential services, including water, sanitation and electricity, have largely ceased to function.
  • In November, prices doubled every two to four days.

UK action

The UK has actively monitored and taken action on the repeated human rights violations in Zimbabwe witnessed throughout 2008. Working with EU partners and the international community, we have repeatedly raised our concerns with the government of Zimbabwe, other governments in the region and in international fora including the UN Security Council, General Assembly, Human Rights Council and the G8.

Following the elections, the UK pressed for international recognition of the appalling conditions under which they were held. The G8 Foreign Ministers meeting in Japan said that they "deplore the actions of the Zimbabwean authorities", which "made a free and fair presidential runoff election impossible".

On 23 June, the UN Security Council issued a presidential statement condemning the campaign of violence. On 11 July, the UN Security Council tabled a resolution introducing sanctions against Mugabe and key members of the Zimbabwean regime. The UK strongly supported this resolution as an opportunity to impose a legal obligation on Mugabe's government to end the violence and intimidation. The resolution secured the 9 votes required; however, it was vetoed by the Russian Federation and China.

In July, the Foreign Secretary visited about 2,000 Zimbabwean refugees who had taken refuge in the Central Methodist Church in Johannesburg. He heard first-hand accounts of the brutality they had suffered at the hands of the regime in Zimbabwe and the difficulties faced since travelling to South Africa. Many came from Matabeleland and spoke of increased brutality by the security forces against the rural population. The church leaders highlighted the difficulties that the local South African authorities were having coping with the continuing influx of refugees and the strain it was placing on the local community.

Lord Malloch-Brown, Minister for Africa, also met Zimbabwean refugees on his visit to South Africa in December. He expressed his concern at the continuing deterioration of living conditions in Zimbabwe and the rapid rise of cholera. During the visit the Minister discussed the crisis in Zimbabwe with a number of key political figures. He urged South African support for a swift resolution to the political impasse to prevent a regional crisis and that humanitarian relief for those enduring disease and deprivation in Zimbabwe be increased.

European Union

The EU has been united in condemnation of Mugabe's campaign of violence and his disregard for the democratic process. The EU has had measures in place since 2002, which target individuals, not the Zimbabwean people. The UK worked with EU colleagues in 2008 to expand these measures as a means to increase pressure on the regime. On 22 July, the EU added 37 individuals, including those involved in the violence that had occurred during the elections, and for the first time froze the assets of four ZANU PF related companies. The number of individuals and companies subject to a visa ban and asset freeze was increased again in December to 180.

The EU has also highlighted the deteriorating humanitarian conditions in Zimbabwe. On 7 August, heads of mission in Harare, including the UK, other EU member states, Japan, Canada, Australia and the USA, delivered a statement to the government of Zimbabwe calling for an immediate lifting of the NGO ban. The EU has demarched the Zimbabwean government over the abduction of Jestina Mukoko.

Financial support

In 2008, the UK increased funding for civil society organisations, including those seeking to uphold human rights and democratic freedoms, to £3.5 million. Many of those organisations directly involved in fighting the worst of the regime's human rights abuses were supported by the UK. The resilience of the doctors, lawyers and human rights defenders in the face of extreme state oppression has been remarkable. We have also continued to support grass roots organisations seeking to improve conditions for ordinary Zimbabweans. Our £300,000 Britain in Zimbabwe Community Partnership Scheme has focused on delivering small-scale projects to communities with the most urgent needs, with a particular focus on health, education and vulnerable groups. Our support this year included a particular focus on voter mobilisation, election monitoring and dealing with the impact of election-related violence.

Aid and humanitarian relief

The UK is the second largest bilateral donor to Zimbabwe, giving £45 million in aid in 2008 and more than £200 million since 2000. DfID's livelihoods programme has provided seeds and fertiliser to 200,000 poor households as well as supporting others with livestock, gardens and clean water. Over 150,000 orphans and vulnerable children have been supported to go to school and our health programmes support universal access to HIV and AIDS treatment, prevention and care as well as contraceptives for women and vaccinations for children. We are the largest donor to the International Organisation for Migration, which provides assistance to displaced people and migrants.

We are working with the UN and other donors to prevent the current situation in Zimbabwe from deteriorating. Food shortage is a major concern. DfID has provided £9 million to the World Food Programme, £5 million for vital drugs and medicines, and £1 million to support emergency water and sanitation, and responses to epidemic diseases such as cholera. We expect it will be necessary to give sustained large-scale humanitarian support from the international community for the foreseeable future.

Forward look

Zimbabwe will remain a priority for the UK. We will continue to work with international partners, including the EU and UN, as well those in the southern African region to press for positive change in Zimbabwe. However, the economic, humanitarian and wider human rights crisis threatens to deepen unless there is a swift and sustainable resolution to the political situation.

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