The Status of Human Rights Organizations in Sub-Saharan Africa

Zimbabwe today is in the process of emerging from the status of a near-de facto one-party state--a situation that persisted from independence until 1990. Among government officials, however, there are still lingering traces of the erstwhile monopoly they exercised over the political process. This has serious implications for the observation and monitoring of political and civil rights in the country. The electronic media is still wholly state-controlled, and the government retains a monopoly over the print media, although several independent newssheets have emerged and are operating with some degree of freedom, tempered by self-censorship. Since the mid-1980s, following the extensive violations that took place during the anti-insurgency operations in Matabeleland, the Zimbabwean government has made efforts to avoid a situation of gross human rights violations. Needless to say, individual cases still abound and are the subject of the attention and concern of the several human rights groups that operate in the country. There is still a certain degree of sensitivity over the Matabeleland troubles, which involved the Zimbabwean Army in conflict with rebels of rival, pre-independence liberation groups, and a virtual siege of the area. This has had implications for the construction of the historical record, and the pursuit of suitable redress for the victims and successors of the brutalities of the 5th Brigade of the Zimbabwean army. Indeed, the government has to date failed to affirmatively accept responsibility for any of the atrocities committed in the area.

Of growing concern to human rights groups, such as the Zimbabwe Human Rights Association (Zimrights) and the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, is the deteriorating framework for the realisation and enhancement of social and economic rights. This situation has been aggravated by the impact of a structural adjustment program (SAP) that has been in place for the past several years. Within this framework, the colonial legacy lingers on in ambivalent fashion. The land question--characterized by the domination of the most productive and dominant portions of land by the white settler class--has emerged as a critical constitutional issue, while simultaneously being deployed as a political weapon against opposition forces. This was clearly the case with evictions from Churu farm--the property of long-time government opponent, Ndabaningi Sithole--in which hundreds of families were evicted from land on which they had settled for several years. It is ironic that the evictees should be the very persons who were supposed to benefit from the government's long-touted program of resettlement of the landless. Human rights organization (HROs), however, have been somewhat ambivalent as to whether the issue is one of process or redress.

The land issue has spilt over into issues of judicial independence and autonomy, as the government has either defied or circumvented with impunity, related court orders and injunctions. Such practices, say observers of state/court relations, are becoming more common, particularly after the courts struck down a legislative amendment to reestablish capital punishment, ruling that it was inhuman and degrading treatment, and thus offensive to the Bill of Rights chapter of the Constitution. There is a clear danger of a pattern of interference developing, which was compounded when President Mugabe pardoned two persons convicted of attempting to assassinate a member of the opposition. Such actions have undermined the independence and autonomy of the judiciary, and have had a negative impact on the enthusiasm of the legal profession as a whole, and the human rights community in particular, towards the pursuit of constitutional test cases.

AMANI: The Consequences of Organized Violence in Southern Africa

Newly registered in Zimbabwe but with a regional focus, the Amani Trust is an interesting and valuable effort to deal with the case of victims of organized violence in the Southern African area, and is perhaps the first organization of its kind, dealing exclusively with the question in the region. It is poised to offer potentially significant resources to victims both in and from countries in the region (Mozambique, Angola, South Africa, and so on), and outside it. The prime movers behind the Trust include psychologists as well as social and medical workers who have some experience with post-traumatic stress. The Trust's focus will be the holding of training workshops on the analysis and treatment of post-traumatic stress in refugee camps, as well as the treatment of victims of torture. Conceptually, the main focus of the treatment will be community-based. The work of the Trust will involve both the creation of training manuals and the deployment of fieldworkers and managers in a cost-effective manner. It also intends to develop a regional program for rehabilitation of victims of torture and organized violence, from which several of the countries of the region and beyond stand to benefit. It has only recently acquired a building in Harare and has yet to begin work.

Bulawayo Legal Projects Centre

The Bulawayo Legal Projects Centre (BLPC) functions under the overall supervision of the Legal Resources Foundation in Harare, but operates in a fairly autonomous fashion. The BLPC is pursuing several interesting initiatives, especially in the areas of paralegal training, operating from their Legal Advice Centre, and test case litigation, which seeks to bring to judicial scrutiny cases that impinge on the Bill of Rights section of the Constitution. Such cases have so far focused on citizens' rights, sexual harassment, freedom of expression, and access to the media. The BLPC also conducts legal education programs, which are held several times through the year at a variety of locations. It has also targeted the police and other agencies through its Law Enforcement Agency Program.

Of particular relevance in terms of training are the paralegal programs, which have been developed in a systematic and well-thought-out fashion. The programs are conducted by several highly experienced and qualified personnel, and there is now in place a regional diploma. The programs' emphasis on mediation and conciliation would be of particular relevance and applicability to HROs elsewhere. Also of interest is the recently-established Alternative Sentencing Program that is targeted at high-level judicial officers, and which could be usefully emulated by HROs developing training programs elsewhere in Africa. Although facing several difficulties, BLPC's experience in attempting to unearth and chronicle the atrocities of the 5th Brigade in Matabeleland in the mid-1980s could provide a useful precedent to other HROs attempting to excavate and bring to account human rights abuses committed in the past.

Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace

The Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Zimbabwe (CCJPZ) has been a prominent actor in the human rights arena since well before independence, and continues to be a vocal critic of flagrant state-sponsored transgressions of human rights. Especially significant has been the CCJPZ's critical focus on social and economic issues and the assault by the structural adjustment program (SAP) on respect for these rights. With an extensive network that is founded in the church, the Commission carries out educational programs, which include the production of materials and a newsletter. It has also focused on critical human rights questions of importance to the development of respect for human rights in the country. As a site for training, the Commission would be ideal, but there are several issues, such as space, that would be involved. In addition, the Commission would be interested in developing its links with other African Justice and Peace Commissions.

Legal Aid and Advice Centre (University of Zimbabwe)

The Legal Aid and Advice Centre (LAAC) was located at the University as a public interest law firm with a clinic that gave advice to indigent people. It was operated principally by the students, under the supervision of a member of staff, the last being Derek Matyszak. It eventually collapsed due to the intermittent nature of student participation (resulting from vacations, etc.), and the consequent shifting of workload to the faculty, which eventually became overbearing.

A committee that investigated the issue decided that only test cases should be taken up, with two stationary and mobile clinics that would visit a variety of places and dispense legal advice in a periodic fashion. There remains, however, a shortage of resources and personnel, because experience has shown that delegation is not feasible, and the work cannot be done on a part-time basis as had hitherto been the case. A reformulation of the project is essential, one that would provide for a full-time Director and the integration of a strong research bias into the project (for example, on the death penalty or prison conditions), rather than an emphasis on a clinic as such. A proposal for the revival of the scheme in a reformulated manner is in circulation.

Legal Resources Foundation

The Legal Resources Foundation (LRF) is the largest and most prominent legal assistance/human rights organization in Zimbabwe. It is experienced in the field, and conducts a number of comprehensive training programs. It has been, and will continue to be, an extremely important location for the training of human rights workers from around the continent, and could also provide personnel to carry out in-country training programs for other groups. Such programs would, of course, be dependent on available resources and space.

The LRF has a staff of nearly sixty, with established branches in Bulawayo, Gweru, Masvingo and one to be set up at Mutare. The LRF operates a Citizen's Advice Bureau which gives legal advice to indigent persons; conducts an extensive paralegal education program; runs a program on law enforcement for state officials, such as magistrates and police officers; and has a test case program. The LRF also publishes several different materials, ranging from Legal Forum to popular pamphlets on a variety of issues, and contributes regularly to debates on legislation and other matters of a public interest nature.

Zimbabwe Human Rights Association

Zimrights was established in February 1992 following the identification of the need for a nationally-based human rights group; it was designed to address some of the questions that remain insufficiently targeted by existing HROs. The primary activities of the organization are human rights education, documentation, and advocacy, although the parameters of operation have yet to be strictly defined.

Zimrights' draft constitution is to be debated and adopted at the first General Meeting to be held on February 12, 1994. The draft envisages Trustees, a National Council composed of approximately twenty people countrywide, and regional Councils in the nine regions of the country. Also proposed are district and local branches with at least five members. At present, only the Bulawayo branch has an officer in station.

Zimrights was registered in 1993. The Secretariat is under the supervision of the Secretary General, with a skeleton staff of one secretary and a full-time volunteer intern. The rest of its activities are carried out by volunteers who come in intermittently. Active members and branches of Zimrights are spread around the country, but none appears to have fully crystallized into structures of operation, independent of the centre; therefore, it is difficult to gauge the extent of their formalization within the operation of Zimrights as a whole.

The main focus of the organization has been:

- human rights education. Several training workshops, focused at the grassroots level, have been conducted in order to provide a grounding in the Constitution, the African Charter and the UN instruments;

- research, publication and documentation. Activities include providing information on abuses in the national context, producing the newsletter and developing a data bank on human rights issues in the country;

- legal assistance and advice, which envisages a support service for the indigent. At the present time, this activity is limited by resources, and by the operation of the Legal Resources Foundation, but a number of interesting cases have been brought to Zimrights, including "disappearances", deaths in custody and the issue of offensive legislation impinging on the realization of human rights; and

- general awareness and education, a part of which includes a focus on the general elections scheduled for 1995.


Zimbabwe also plays host to several regional organizations, such as Women and Law in Southern Africa (WLSA) and Women in Law and Development in Africa (WiLDAF), both of which focus on women's rights, but are coordinating, umbrella groups with important resources for training and research that could be utilised.

Women and Law in Southern Africa

Women and Law in Southern Africa includes six national HROs involved in research into the status of women's rights under the law. Its coordinating office is located in Harare. WLSA's principal function is to provide information as well as training, with an Afrocentric approach. WLSA's approach to research is not traditional, and it attempts as much as possible to utilize small samples, with in-depth interviews and radio programs, accompanied by several workshops and seminars, particularly in the rural areas. WLSA also conducts a diploma program in women's law in collaboration with the University of Zimbabwe, which has already produced several graduates, and has much potential for the empowerment of workers in women's groups throughout the region, particularly by way of critical and alternative research methodologies.

Women in Law and Development in Africa


Established in early 1990, Women in Law and Development in Africa (WiILDAF) is a women's rights network that covers fifteen African countries, and is designed to promote and strengthen strategies of action linking law and development, in the bid to empower women and improve their general status. WiLDAF conducts several training programs focused on issues such as legal literacy, educational materials, lobbying, mobilization and networking strategies. Its work is thus of particular relevance to both newly-established and long-standing HROs.

- Joe Oloka-Onyango

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