One step forward, two steps back in Zimbabwe reforms

By Stephanie McBride, Amnesty International Canada’s Zimbabwe Coordinator

When I lived in Zimbabwe last year, my friends and I would often talk politics. President Robert Mugabe had ruled the country for their entire lives. Our discussions focused on their frustration— frustration that genuine political engagement with civil society remained out of reach; frustration that public declarations and policy statements amounted to very little in practice; and frustration that the political process involved taking one step forward and two steps back.  

A step forward was taken in March, when a national referendum led to the adoption of a new constitution. Citing a “peaceful, successful, and credible” referendum, the European Union terminated sanctions against 81 Zimbabwean officials, leaving only 10 people on the list, including President Robert Mugabe. The new constitution limits the President to two five-year terms and includes a bill of rights which stipulates freedom of expression and freedom of the press.

But there’s always the two steps back…accusations of referendum rigging, although not validated, have emerged, and sources have alleged that many individuals in rural areas refused to vote because they had never read or seen the draft constitution. In the run-up to the referendum, there were allegations of politically-motivated attacks on individuals distributing posters, intimidation of journalists, and police raids on the headquarters of non-governmental organizations. As well, prominent human rights lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa was arbitrarily arrested at the office of Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai on March 17, and released several days later. Amnesty International launched an urgent action and campaigned ardently for Mtetwa’s release.

National elections are supposed to take place in the coming months. Voter registration began on April 29, but the election date has not been set. There have already been reports that the voter registration process has been comprised, with Zimbabwe Electoral Commission officials absent from many key registration centres in areas that are strongholds of the opposition party, leaving people unable to register. 

Although the new constitution represents a step forward towards a more decentralized and democratic Zimbabwe, the incidents of political violence surrounding the referendum and the problems emerging with voter registration represent two steps backwards.

Amnesty International will keep a close eye on developments in Zimbabwe this year. We are concerned that violence could escalate during the election process, but we remain hopeful—hopeful that Zimbabwe can move forward and not take any steps back—hopeful for a just political process where the human rights of all are fully respected.