Zimbabwean Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa, surprising many of his critics, said in an interview with the state-controlled Herald newspaper that he will urge the government to ratify the United Nations Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, adopted by the UN in 1984.
Chinamasa drew attention late last year with his steadfast opposition to many human rights reforms under discussion in United Nations forums.
Zimbabwean state agents have over the years been accused of torturing opponents of President Robert Mugabe and his ZANU PF. Chinamasa said those accused of such crimes in Zimbabwe did not do it with the approval of their superiors.
"They do it without the blessings or authority of their superiors. Any properly trained officer knows that you do not do unlawful things or no officer cannot be ordered or directed by their superiors to do unlawful things," Chinamasa told the Herald.
The justice minister said he will lobby the Cabinet for ratification of the convention, which came into force in June 1987 after it was adopted and opened for signatures by the UN General Assembly resolution in 1984.
Chinamasa said once Zimbabwe ratifies the conventions, this will allow the prosecution of those who alleged to have used torture while investigating crimes.
Human rights advocates have long pushed for the ratification of this convention accusing state agents of torturing victims with no action taken against the perpetrators.
Human rights lawyer Dewa Mavhinga, regional coordinator for the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, said this is a welcome move by the government but he added that the timing is suspicious and Chinamasa may be acting for political reasons.
“The state failed to take resolute measures against perpetrators who have tortured individuals in the past and this has led to the continued impunity of that torture," said Mavhinga. “You will recall the case of Jestina Mukoko where the Supreme Court ruled that she had indeed been tortured by state agents but no action was taken and there are many rulings of that nature in Zimbabwe.”
But he said that if the convention is adopted and authorities fail to prosecute, victims would have some recourse at an international level.
Torture victim Gabriel Shumba of the Zimbabwe Exiles Forum said Chinamasa’s statements should be taken with a ‘pinch of salt,' saying as long as practice and policy on the ground do not change, citizens will continue to be tortured in Zimbabwe.
“It might be a move that is designed to hoodwink the international community which is making efforts to get people, that have been committing torture in Zimbabwe with impunity, to be brought to book," Shumba said.
Shumba said Zimbabwe is well known for ratifying many international covenants and conventions which have then been flouted by agents of the state.