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Thu Oct 13, 2016

Reviewing Zimbabwe’s Human Rights Record: AIDS-Free World attends the UPR civil society pre-sessions in Geneva

AIDS-Free World was in Geneva the week of October 3rd to attend civil society pre-sessions for the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Zimbabwe, which is scheduled to be held this November.

The UPR is a process established by the UN Human Rights Council whereby the human rights records of all 193 UN Member States are periodically reviewed. According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the UPR process “provides an opportunity for all States to declare what actions they have taken to improve the human rights situations in their countries and to overcome challenges to the enjoyment of human rights”. UPR pre-sessions are regularly organized by UPR-Info, a Geneva-based NGO, to provide an opportunity for Permanent Missions, National Human Rights Institutions, and Civil Society Organizations to discuss the human rights situation of States in advance of the official review by the UPR Working Group. In the words of UPR-Info, the pre-sessions “offer permanent delegations the opportunity to be informed on the status of implementation of recommendations made during the previous review, while providing space for civil society to influence the process by lobbying several delegations at once”.

AIDS-Free World attended the October 6th pre-sessions, where South Sudan, Zimbabwe and Venezuela were being discussed. Our goal was to support the Zimbabwean civil society organizations speaking that day, and also meet with Member State representatives and urge them to raise the issue of politically motivated sexual violence in Zimbabwe at the UPR, using the recommendations we provided in our joint UPR submission in March 2016.

The audience appeared to be made up mostly of Member State representatives, perhaps as much as 70%, with the remainder of the audience from civil society groups. The first country discussed was South Sudan. Sadly, the moderator noted that a number of local NGOs had expressed interest in speaking, but had determined it was too dangerous to speak out publicly against the government. Instead, representatives from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch spoke about the horrifying human rights violations, including sexual violence, continuing in the country, and in particular the ongoing danger posed to humanitarian workers. At the end of the presentations, two representatives from the government of South Sudan had an opportunity to speak, but were quickly reprimanded by the moderator for trying to defend the allegations raised by the panelists, and were instructed that the UPR itself would be the time for such defenses.

The panel on Zimbabwe was next. First to speak was Lloyd Kuveya, from the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum (one of the co-authors of our UPR submission). Lloyd was there to speak on a number of important topics, including election reform, repression of protests, and the issue of impunity. It was on this third matter where Lloyd raised the issue of politically motivated sexual violence, decrying the lack of action taken by the government, and the continued impunity for these crimes. Speaking with Lloyd afterwards, he lamented the fact that a failure to hold perpetrators accountable amounts to a green light for those who might resort to similar tactics in the future.

Other Zimbabwean groups on the panel included Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, SOS Children’s Villages Zimbabwe, Sexual Rights Center, and the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions. All spoke passionately about their issues, and all painted a similar picture in Zimbabwe: a government failing to live up to its human rights obligations.

When the panel finished, representatives from Zimbabwe spoke briefly, showing South Sudan that it has a lot to learn about playing the part of a repressive regime on the international stage with their fulsome thank yous and compliments, assuring the panelists that they heard their complaints and would respond accordingly. According to some of the panelists, the government representatives met with them afterwards and assured them they are making progress on setting up some of the long-promised national human rights mechanisms, but everyone remains skeptical.

There was an opportunity after civil society organizations spoke for Member States to ask questions. Unfortunately, there was little engagement from those in attendance, with Canada providing the sole exception. Before and after the meeting, we were able to engage with a number of Member State representatives on the issues in our UPR. We spoke with representatives from the Netherlands, Canada, Australia, United States, United Kingdom, Switzerland, Finland, Germany, Denmark, and Botswana (by phone). We were very gratified by their level of interest and engagement on the issue. We identified these countries as leaders in the area of women’s rights, and their positive response to our recommendations related to politically motivated sexual violence in Zimbabwe made it clear that they hope to continue this leadership.

If there was any skepticism on the part of the representatives it was over the question of whether this issue is still “live”, given that the widespread campaign of sexual violence cited in our report occurred in 2008. The simple answer is: yes. First, the victims from 2008 continue to seek justice. Though physical scars may have healed, their lives were irreversibly changed by the brutal violence they suffered. For them to know that the perpetrators have never faced justice, but still have to see them on the street, at the local market, or on television, is a continued travesty. The other reason the issue is still pertinent is that Zimbabwe stands at a precipice: protests and opposition movements are gaining strength, as the possibility of an end to President Mugabe’s rule, who is nearing his mid-90s, is finally on the horizon. Further, amidst the political in-fighting and positioning for control, the economy is in tatters and the resulting humanitarian crises makes political change even more likely. But as Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party worries that its hold on power is weakening, this same regime that in 2008 carried out a campaign of violence and intimidation, including rape and torture, may resort to these same tools again. That is why Member States must make it clear to Zimbabwe that the world is watching, that the perpetrators must be held accountable, and that a repeat of the horrible violations from 2008 will not be tolerated.

After successful efforts in Geneva, we will continue to lobby Member States to raise these issues at Zimbabwe’s UPR in November. We will also continue to work with our partners in the UPR submission, Research and Advocacy Unit and Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum, to raise awareness of the issues and monitor the ongoing situation in Zimbabwe. The meetings in Geneva showed that Zimbabwe civil society is strong, vibrant, and unafraid to denounce the Zimbabwean government. We will do everything we can to help rally international support for their brave work.