Zimbabwe has set out on the long road to ending its international isolation by hosting the United Nation’s human rights commissioner for the first time and holding talks with Europe.
But far from showing that Zimbabwe was moving ahead, the visit of the UN’s Navi Pillay provided a platform for activists to claim that rights abuses were still continuing.
Three years ago Zimbabwe expelled UN human rights inspector Manfred Nowak, but this week it laid out the red carpet for Pillay.
Her visit came as the country was stepping up top-level efforts to engage Europe again, a decade after the European Union placed sanctions on top Zimbabwean officials.
Rights groups said Pillay was led up the garden path by government “minders”, headed by Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa. A wide range of pro-Zanu-PF organisations were lined up to meet her and meetings with government critics were either cancelled or moved down the agenda.
President Robert Mugabe’s ruling party hopes Pillay’s visit will help to end the country’s isolation, but it is unlikely – a coalition of rights groups met and handed her what they said was a dossier detailing continued rights violations.
The Zimbabwe Civil Society Organisations, which represent about 40 groups, described how activists were being detained and held for long periods without trial. It said Zanu-PF had deliberately blocked efforts to free its grip on broadcasting, the party’s militia in the townships and in the countryside were increasing a campaign of intimidation, and the military was taking an increasingly active role in public affairs.
The government has set up a human rights commission, but legislation that would allow it to operate has been blocked and public hearings on the legislation were disrupted by Zanu-PF militias last year.
Emerging from a meeting with Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, Pillay said she had sought his assurances that Zimbabwe was prepared to deal with the possibility of a repeat of the election violence of 2008.
“I was able to raise many areas of concern from a human rights point of view, such as nonrecurrence of violence that occurred in the last elections and what steps are being taken to protect ordinary people from such violence,” Pillay said.
Tsvangirai said “progress has been made on the country’s human rights situation” and that Zimbabwe hoped to have legimitate elections. “The incidents are still there and we are addressing them. We hope that forthcoming elections will be free and fair and legitimate and that we move away from violence.”
This drew criticism from activists, who said he was joining efforts to paper over Zimbabwe’s rights record. The criticism has underlined a growing rift between Tsvangirai and his civil society allies.
The activists also complained that the tour had been hijacked. “The visit is not meant to be a stage-managed process where state representatives take the UN high commissioner through a guided tour to meet people who give a glorified and sugar-coated account of the human rights situation in Zimbabwe,” the coalition said in a statement.
Chinamasa, who was hosting Pillay, was trying to “paint a superficial picture of our country’s human rights situation”, the coalition added.
Irene Petras, who heads the organisation Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, said: “There is still suppression of freedom of expression, there is suppression of freedom of assembly. There are human rights abuses that are continuing and we must not try to sweep these things under the carpet.”
Zimbabwe held a meeting in Brussels with EU representatives last week but it yielded few results, although officials reported that it had been far less heated than previous meetings.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said after the meeting that Europe believed some progress was being made in Zimbabwe.
“The EU recognised progress to date and encouraged the reform process to continue in the same positive direction, allowing progress towards normalisation of relations,” she was quoted as saying.
Although relations with Europe might have thawed somewhat, Zimbabwe is still getting no joy from the United States.
Johnnie Carson, US assistant secretary for African Affairs and a former envoy to Zimbabwe, said his government would maintain sanctions on Zimbabwe until it saw “sufficient progress in the area of democratisation”.