To the optimist, the confirmation that United Nations’ human rights commissioner Navi Pillay will officially visit Zimbabwe marks the beginning of a new era in a country that not only has a chequered human rights record, but also had a major falling-out with this UN office.
In October 2009 Manfred Nowak, then-UN special rapporteur on torture, cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment and punishment (appointed by the UN’s human rights council), was unable to conduct a fact-finding mission after he was deported from Zimbabwe.
The incident coincided with Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s claim that his Movement for Democratic Change had “disengaged” from President Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF – citing human rights violations and persistent breaches of the frosty power-sharing agreement between the parties.
Relations between Zimbabwe and the UN were also thorny in October last year when Mugabe cancelled a trip to Geneva in protest against the denial of visas to his wife, Grace, and six top aides for an International Telecommunications Union summit on information and technologies.
So, to hear that Zimbabwe has finally extended an invitation to Pillay is an interesting development. In fact, it was initially extended in February, but she could not make it then because of other commitments.
There is no doubt that the human rights situation in Zimbabwe has improved considerably over the period of inclusive government, compared with the period leading to its formation.
Had Pillay visited in February, she would have found the situation was nearing normalcy. Diamond watchdog the Kimberley Process had approved gems from the Marange diamond fields and the European Union had removed certain individuals and companies from its sanctions list.
However, the political temperature has risen since then as a result of the pending constitutional referendum and prospects of elections to end the unity government’s barren “marriage of convenience”.
The timing of Pillay’s visit now is the subject of much speculation and certainly will not be devoid of controversy.
Minister of Justice and Legal Affairs Patrick Chinamasa, who invited Pillay, could have spilled the beans. He was quoted by the state media as saying he had “warned her in advance that news of her coming to Zimbabwe would trigger negative stories to colour her appreciation of the situation”.
Crimes against humanity
His comments were made when he dismissed a recent North Gauteng High Court judgment that wanted Pretoria to investigate Zimbabwean officials for alleged “crimes against humanity”, charging that the landmark ruling brought the South African justice system “into disrepute”.
Chinamasa said the ruling was part of a regime-change agenda that aimed to put Zimbabwe in the spotlight ahead of Pillay’s visit.
Such pronouncements, sadly, can be viewed as an attempt to pre-empt the commissioner’s findings – a scenario that exposes Zanu-PF’s defensive position should they be unfavourable. It would seem that Chinamasa has drawn the battle lines too soon.
As human rights chief, Pillay has had her work cut out for her. After a visit to Syria in August last year she encouraged the UN Security Council to refer the country to the International Criminal Court for an investigation into, and possible prosecution of, individuals alleged to have committed crimes against humanity.
She followed her visit with a full international commission of inquiry to interview witnesses and gather evidence. Her report found that the Syrian army and security forces were guilty of crimes against humanity in their repression of a largely civilian population. These included murder, torture, rape and arbitrary detention.
It was not surprising then when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad refuted the findings and claimed that the UN was not a credible organisation.
A similar pattern was followed when Pillay visited Palestine’s occupied territories. She ordered that the settlements “should be stopped altogether” because they violated human rights. She went on to establish an international committee to investigate the implications of the Israeli settlements on the civil, political, economic and cultural rights of the Palestinian people.
It was at this point that Israel refused to co-operate with the human rights council, barring the proposed fact-finding mission from entering the West Bank because of what Israel perceived as a pro-Palestinian bias by the UN.
During her five-day mission starting on May 20, the South African born Pillay will hold meetings with Mugabe, Tsvangirai, government ministers, the chief justice, the speaker of Parliament, the president of the Senate, the Zimbabwean Human Rights Commission and members of civil society.
Her itinerary also includes a possible visit to the Marange diamond fields. There could be no better time for a country preparing for a constitutional referendum and general elections to invite a high-profile commissioner such as Pillay.
Her visit could lead to further appropriate steps being taken to improve the human rights situation in Zimbabwe. In this regard, it could provide the crossover to a new and progressive human rights culture.
Webster Zambara is a senior project leader for Southern Africa at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, South Africa