Reconciling the past for a stable future

The country’s history since independence, as well as its colonial past, makes it ripe for considering transitional justice measures to find a political solution that range from doing absolutely nothing to the prosecution and punishment of those involved in human rights abuses, a recent research paper by the South African think tank, the Institute for Security Studies contends.

In 1980, after Zimbabwe won its independence from Britain, the country’s founding – and current – president, Robert Mugabe, asked in his first speech "Is it not folly, therefore, that in these circumstances anybody should seek to revive the wounds and grievances of the past? … The wrongs of the past must now stand forgiven and forgotten."  

The paper, Justice and Peace in a new Zimbabwe: Transitional Justice Options , co-authored by Max du Plessis, an associate law professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, and Jolyon Ford, of the Centre for International Governance and Justice at the Australian National University, argued that deliberately forgetting Rhodesia’s excesses has had a debilitating influence on Zimbabwe’s present.

"This passive form of response to Rhodesian-era abuses left many legacies still affecting Zimbabwe today, including a prevailing culture of impunity," Du Plessis and Ford said.

The authors disagree with the approach taken by the International Crisis Group (ICG) that Zimbabwe would need "a transitional justice mechanism at some stage to come to terms fully with and move beyond its long nightmare."

"But it is difficult to see how ‘justice’ can be separated from political issues during this stalemate, since fear of prosecution partly explains hardliners’ resistance", Du Plessis and Ford commented.

"It is clear that these issues will be directly shaping political negotiations now, in the interim period – questions about what kind of justice strategy can secure the conditions for a transition to take place at all, and then to take place peacefully."

The details of negotiations between Mugabe’s ruling ZANU-PF party and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change have been shrouded in secrecy since a memorandum of understanding ushering in the talks was signed on 21 July, although history suggests that those who concede power seek certain guarantees.

Mugabe, along with loyal cabinet ministers and security chiefs, have been accused of a host of human rights abuses during their 28 years in power, which some commentators say could put them firmly in the sights of The Hague’s International Criminal Court.

A catalogue of human rights abuses

In 1983, Mugabe unleashed the North Korean-trained 5th Brigade, under the command of Lt-Col Perence Shire and currently commander of Zimbabwe’s air force, against alleged political dissidents in Matabeleland.

''If a legitimate transition is accomplished in Zimbabwe, the ‘singularity’ of truth commissions – one-off, limited-purpose-and-lifespan institutions carrying a ‘never again’ message – commends them as highly visible and powerful mechanism to break with past troubles''

At least 20,000 people were killed in this campaign, Operation Gukurahundi, which targeted members of the rival liberation movement, ZAPU, led by Joshua Nkomo and drawn mainly from Zimbabwe’s Ndebele people in the southwest of the country.

Two security ministers presided over the operation: Emerson Mnangagwa, currently minister of rural housing, and Sydney Sekeremayi, who holds the defence portfolio. A human rights pressure group based in The Hague, Crimes Against Humanity Zimbabwe, is campaigning for Gukurahundi to be recognised as genocide.

Mugabe claimed the dissidents were trying to overthrow the government backed by apartheid South Africa. But in 2000, at the state funeral of Nkomo, he called the killings "madness", but stopped short of an apology.

In the winter of 2005 the ZANU-PF government launched Operation Murambatsvina, also known as Operation Drive Out Rubbish. It was officially described as a slum clearance programme that was also intended to flush out criminals.

More than 700,000 people were left homeless after houses and shacks were bulldozed, while informal traders’ stalls were demolished and their goods confiscated, leaving them without a livelihood.

United Nations Special Envoy Anna Tibaijuka visited Zimbabwe in the wake of Murambatsvina and said the operation had breached both national and international human rights law. General Constantine Chiwenga, chief of Zimbabwe’s defence forces, and Augustine Chihuri, chief of police, were directly involved in the planning and execution of the operation.

2000 ushered in nearly a decade of political violence that began after Mugabe lost the February 2000 constitutional referendum and culminated in the recent 2008 elections, in which the opposition claims saw scores of people killed. Mugabe retained power in a ballot widely dismissed as flawed.

Although there is no one-size-fits-all approach to restorative justice, "the broad shape of any future justice mechanism and process is something that will determine – and be determined by – present political machinations," Du Plessis and Ford noted.

Restorative justice

The Zimbabwe Human Rights Non-governmental Organisation Forum, which monitors abuses and assists victims, said in 2006 there was "considerable support" for human rights violators to be put on trial.

Searching for the truth

"[Roman Catholic] Archbishop [of Bulawayo] Pius Ncube has said that cycles of abuse and impunity in Zimbabwe are ‘cancerous’, so that there is a need to avoid amnesties and simply prosecute persons in future, including to educate future generations," Du Plessis and Ford wrote.

Neighbouring South Africa set up a truth commission in the wake of apartheid’s demise, with the objective of establishing an accurate record of past oppression to break the silence on human rights abuses and compensate victims.

Du Plessis and Ford argue that the formation of a truth commission should be at the forefront of Zimbabwe’s negotiations, considering the levels of alleged state brutality, the politicisation of the judiciary, "the covert nature of both direct state abuses and indirect state-instigated action", the culture of impunity, and the lack of remedial options.

"If a legitimate transition is accomplished in Zimbabwe, the ‘singularity’ of truth commissions – one-off, limited-purpose-and-lifespan institutions carrying a ‘never again’ message – commends them as a highly visible and powerful mechanism to break with past troubles," Du Plessis and Ford said.

However, they also said it would be "naïve to deny" that "there still may need to be some privileging of ‘peace’ over ‘justice’ in the way those involved in negotiations choose to deal with past abuses."