Alarmed by reports of increasing rights violations in Zimbabwe ahead of the March 16 constitutional referendum, the United Nations on Wednesday issued a statement saying Harare must respect fundamental freedoms in the run-up to the national vote.
The statement from three UN Special Rapporteurs - Frank la Rue, Maina Kiai and Margaret Sekaggya - said it was pertinent that Zimbabwe respected international rights norms and standards pertaining to freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression in the run up to the constitutional referendum and subsequent elections expected later in the year.
The rapporteurs said they have been receiving increasing numbers of reports about acts of intimidation and harassment, physical violence and arrests of civil society actors, mostly working on human rights issues.
“In the context of proposed constitutional reforms and the elections, it is disturbing and shocking to learn that civil society organizations that have been operating for years, including election monitoring groups which aim to promote free and fair elections, have been searched by police,” said Maina Kiai, the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.
“With the referendum less than two weeks away, human rights defenders who promote participation have a critical role to play,” added the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Margaret Sekaggya.
She added that search procedures must not be applied selectively, adding the right to privacy needs to be respected.
“The on-going practice of arrests against the activists could seriously hamper the right to freedom of expression,” stressed the Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Frank La Rue.
“The Zimbabwean authorities must ensure that such measures are applied in accordance with international standards and everyone is guaranteed the right to speak freely without fear of persecution, arrest and intimidation.”
A number of civil society organizations have been searched by the police lately with files containing donor information, annual reports and human rights documents being seized.
The experts also voiced their concern at the police’s use of force against, and arrests of, Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) protesters during their annual Valentine’s Day protest outside parliament. They said they stand ready to provide any assistance to contribute to the protection of fundamental freedoms in Zimbabwe, including through a country visit.
“We urge the authorities to take all relevant measures to ensure everyone’s voice is heard, in view of the recurrence of acts of intimidation and harassment against those exercising their rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, which are essential components of democracy,” they underscored.
Meanwhile, leader of the other MDC formation, Industry Minister Welshman Ncube, said the upsurge in political violence and crack down on civil society is a resurgence of all the bad habits that existed before the unity government was formed.
Mr. Ncube blames Zanu-PF for the violence.