Events of 1990

Human Rights Developments

The year 1990 was one of significant change in Zimbabwe. A 25-year-old state of emergency was lifted, and with it the government's power to detain without charge. The few remaining detainees were released, as were some 200 prisoners convicted of politically related offenses. After much debate, the ruling party decided not to proceed toward the creation of a one-party state.

On the negative side, however, general elections early in the year were accompanied by intimidation of opposition parties and manipulation of the media. In late 1990, the government sought to reduce the independence of the University of Zimbabwe and to amend the Constitution to restrict certain rights.

In July, Minister of Home Affairs Moven Mahachi announced that the government would not seek parliamentary renewal of the state of emergency when it expired that month. The emergency had been imposed in 1965, shortly before the Rhodesian government made its Unilateral Declaration of Independence from Britain, and was retained after Zimbabwe gained lawful independence in 1980. It gave the government a variety of special powers, notably the right to detain indefinitely without charge or trial on grounds of national security. This power was used extensively by the Rhodesian government, but also at certain times by the Zimbabwean government. At one point, in 1985, some 200 detainees were believed held under emergency powers. By 1990, the number detained had dwindled to a handful of individuals alleged to have carried out acts of sabotage on behalf of South Africa. Their detention orders lapsed when the emergency ended.

Local and international human rights groups had called for the emergency to be lifted. They had also requested the release of more than 200 prisoners serving sentences for politically motivated security offenses. In July, the government announced an amnesty for these prisoners. Later, a South African woman sentenced to 12 years' imprisonment for spying was released after completing only one quarter of her sentence. She had been tortured before her trial and Africa Watch had called for her release because of the unusually cruel and degrading treatment that she had already suffered.

Under the terms of Zimbabwe's independence, certain "entrenched clauses" of the Constitution would not become open to amendment by a two-thirds majority in Parliament until the tenth anniversary of independence in April 1990. For some time, President Robert Mugabe had made clear that once he had the constitutional freedom to introduce such a measure, he wished Zimbabwe to become a one-party state. However, in the last two years, public opposition to such a move has grown. In August and September, the Politburo and the Central Committee of the ruling party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), met to consider the issue. Both bodies overwhelmingly rejected the one-party system, removing it from the political agenda for the foreseeable future. President Mugabe won considerable praise for allowing free discussion of the issue within the party and for then abiding gracefully by the majority decision.

However, a continuing bone of contention is the operation of the Ministry of Political Affairs, which is in effect a subsidy from the taxpayer to the ruling party. The use of government money to fund one of the contestants must cast doubt on the result of the general election held in March, which was said to have yielded a showing of nearly 80 per cent for ZANU-PF. Other causes for concern were the blatant partisanship of the government-owned daily newspapers, radio and television, as well as the use of administrative measures to prevent the main opposition party, the Zimbabwe Unity Movement (ZUM), from holding meetings in the months leading to the election. ZUM members were subject to harassment, often in the form of short-term detention without charge. Only days before the election, a leading ZUM candidate in Gweru was shot, apparently by security officials, and his election agent was detained and beaten. The harassment continued in the aftermath of the election, with some ZUM organizers detained and one parliamentary candidate arrested on a trumped-up charge of illegally possessing a gun. The charge was later dropped and the persecution of ZUM members eased with the lifting of the state of emergency.

In October, the government introduced legislation to restrict the independence of the University of Zimbabwe and to increase the disciplinary powers of the university administration. The Minister of Higher Education is to have a hand in the selection of a majority of the members of the governing body, and important guarantees of independence are removed from both staff and student disciplinary committees. In late 1989, the university was closed for some weeks after riot police came on campus to break up a student seminar on government corruption.

In December 1990, the Parliament passed government-proposed amendments to the Declaration of Rights, making whipping of juveniles a constitutionally authorized punishment and declaring hanging a legitimate way of carrying out the death penalty. In 1989, the Supreme Court had found that whipping of minors was in violation of the section of the Constitution outlawing inhuman or degrading punishment. The government responded at the time by removing all corporal punishment from the statute book but now seeks to restore it. The Supreme Court had asked for argument on the issue of whether hanging contravened the same constitutional provision. The amendment is clearly designed to pre-empt its ruling.

The significance of these amendments goes beyond the question of whipping and the death penalty. It raises the prospect that the government may attempt to amend the Constitution whenever it faces an adverse Supreme Court ruling, effectively undermining the Declaration of Rights. At the end of 1990, a confrontation between the government and the Supreme Court was expected.

US Policy

The Bush administration describes its aim as "helping to maintain a democratic, racially harmonious, and economically successful Zimbabwe."28 However, apart from the largely accurate chapter in the State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, Africa Watch is aware of only one public statement on human rights in Zimbabwe issued by the administration in 1990. In that statement, a State Department spokeswoman, questioned on the conduct of the elections, described them as "free and fair, despite acts of intimidation and violence during the campaign."29 In Africa Watch's view, this underestimated the significance of harassment of ZUM for many months before the election, as well as the importance of the government's control of the principal mass media and the Ministry of Political Affairs. The State Department said nothing on a variety of other topics that merited comment, for example, the (ultimately unsuccessful) campaign for the creation of a one-party state.

The embassy in Harare has been quietly active in promoting human rights issues, consulting local human rights groups in the preparation of its own reports and distributing material from international bodies. In addition, the State Department's country reports on human rights practices in Zimbabwe in recent years have been accurate and balanced.

The Work of Africa Watch

In late 1989, Africa Watch published a report on Zimbabwe, which was widely read within the country. In the course of 1990, a number of the recommendations in the report were implemented, notably the lifting of the state of emergency and the release of political prisoners. In January and November 1990, an Africa Watch researcher paid two brief visits to the country.

In March, Africa Watch submitted a memorandum to President Mugabe detailing harassment of opposition parties and making recommendations for measures to ensure free and fair elections.

A newsletter published in April detailed violence against opposition members during the election campaign and the later arrest of some ZUM organizers. Their subsequent release was also reported. Another newsletter in November detailed the government's proposals on the university and the Constitution.

28 US Department of State and Defense Security Agency, Congressional Presentation for Security Assistance Programs, FY 1991.

29 State Department Regular Briefing, April 2, 1990.

This 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.