US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, Steve Feldstein with Dr Ibbo Mandaza at Sapes Trust. Below, an excerpt from his address.

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US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, Steve Feldstein with Dr Ibbo Mandaza at Sapes Trust.

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With the benefit of a brief hindsight and the assistance of computer technology, it is not difficult to recognise why all five elections were flawed in favour of incumbency, nor to highlight the extent to which the 2013 one in particular demonstrates the level of impunity, on the part of the state, in manipulating an outcome that also smacks of cynicism in the face of its citizens.

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The revelation, for example, that, like a number of other African states, Zimbabwe has engaged the services of the infamous Israeli security company, Nikuv International Projects — which by its own admission handles voters’ rolls and elections results — should awaken us to the reality that manipulation of the voters’ roll and outright rigging have become so institutionalised in the post-one-party states in Africa. It is the ugly and cynical face of the so-called multi-party democracy in Africa!

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Only a brief reference to the political economy of elections will help to illustrate the point. First, the burden of incumbency, particularly in the context of declining and deteriorating political, economic and social conditions: this means that, in developing countries in particular, but the world over in general, it is always difficult for the incumbent to fare well in an electoral contest; and even in the best of bourgeois democracies, an incumbent either fails to secure a second term or does so with diminished returns at the polls.

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There have been persistent concerns, from the U.S. perspective, when it comes to Zimbabwe, really starting in the early 2000s, when we started viewing a number of incidents as departures from the rule of law, from an appropriate constitutional process, from free and fair elections. In fact, in 2001, our Congress passed the Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act, which prohibits U.S. support for debt relief and new loans to Zimbabwe, which reflected a shared concern between the Congress as well as the Executive branch, and the President, for the deteriorating human rights situation in Zimbabwe. And then, from there, we got to 2003, where an Executive Order was issued by the President — at that time President George Bush – that, because of significant human rights concerns, it imposed upon a specially designated group, sanctions. And those restrictions, in some form, continue to the present day.

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I think the key point when it comes to our policy and our position on human rights, is that we have concerns when it comes to fundamental rights, to freedom of expression, and freedom of association, among other issues, on the human rights agenda. One issue that has been raised already by several of the panellists, but that I think is important to also raise from the U.S. perspective, is the situation of the disappearance of the activist Itai Dzamara. This to us is something that raises significant concerns, and what we have discussed with the government is to make sure that they conduct a full and transparent investigation. We have heard different allegations about the circumstances of the disappearance. I think it is important that we try to get the facts out as quickly as we can. We don’t know what has happened when it comes to Mr. Dzamara, but what we do know is that we are concerned when someone, who is a prominent human rights voice and a prominent representative of the civil society in Zimbabwe, all of a sudden disappears without any real answers and leaving a lot of questions.

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That to us is one of the issues that is emblematic of some of the concerns that we have when it comes to human rights in Zimbabwe. I would point to what our President has said when it comes to the issue of human rights and their relationship to development and economics. What President Obama has said is that development depends on good governance. That is the change that can unlock Africa’s potential and it is a responsibility that can be met only by Africans. I think that is really an important issue. When it comes to political freedoms and stability, it is in the lasting interest of all people and, especially the people of Zimbabwe, for this to be the condition that happens and takes place in the future.

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I would also say that for the United States, we stand as a friend to the people of Zimbabwe, as a partner to help advance these efforts and to help do what we can to be supportive of improving the human rights situation. I would finally also say that our policies towards Zimbabwe are not static. They are not fixed in time. While currently, we have a set of restrictions that are in place, when meaningful progress does take place; when changes do occur, and when the human rights condition – as reported by my friends and partners here on the panel—when they report to us that things have improved, then I think that also necessitates us to examine very carefully what our approach is to Zimbabwe and make sure that it aligns correctly.

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So I would really end my portion by saying that we do not look upon Zimbabwe in isolation when we come up with the human rights reports. This is based on the reporting, the observations, that come from partners on the ground, from local voices, whether on the panel or here today in the room or in other places. It comes from the civil society community. It comes from quasi-autonomous entities, like the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission. It comes from many others who we rely on to make sure we are reporting and representing accurately the situation in the country.