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Zimbabwe: Catholic Church, other groups speak out

NewsNotes, September-October 2008


Talks between the opposing political parties in Zimbabwe have struggled to move forward since a July 21 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) promised to find a lasting solution to the country’s deepening political, economic and humanitarian crisis through dialogue.

The MOU committed the parties to interim measures, including to issue statements condemning violence, take “all measures necessary to ensure that the structures and institutions it controls are not engaged in the perpetration of violence” and “eliminate all forms of political violence, including by non-state actors” as well as ensure the safe return of internally displaced persons and enable humanitarian and social welfare organizations to render assistance.

Despite this, violence against the opposition has continued and humanitarian access has still not been given to organizations working in the field.

Zimbabwe Watch in the Netherlands and Europe External Policy Advisors in Belgium created a very helpful compendium of the positions of 14 important Zimbabwean civil society organizations with a summary of the main issues they address, the benchmarks against which to measure the legitimacy of the negotiations’ outcome and specific recommendations to political parties, the facilitator and the international community. It provides an excellent reference for the international community and is available here.

Despite the exclusivity of the talks, the compendium writes, civil society welcomed the talks and hoped their views would be taken into consideration. They support a transitional government and consider a government of national unity as a subversion of the will of the people. They are encouraging the talking parties to take transitional justice issues seriously and bring perpetrators of violence to justice. They are also calling on the international donor organizations and countries to consider reengagement in the event that the talking parties coming up with an arrangement acceptable to the people of Zimbabwe.

The Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops’ Conference also issued a very important statement, calling on the negotiating parties not to rush into a government of National Unity, but to urgently dismantle instruments of violence, reject impunity and usher in a new political culture in which accountability, inclusiveness, transparency, healing and reconciliation are paramount. Their statement was summarized by AfricaFiles. The full statement, plus one issued by the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, are available at www.maryknollogc.org.

“The crisis in Zimbabwe is one that was caused by exclusion from power and from the people’s right to participate in the processes that affect their lives and from the benefits of growth and development,” said the bishops, in their statement which was made available on August 15. “We therefore think that the negotiators should not rush into establishing a government of national unity,” said the bishops. Rather, they should agree on a transitional arrangement, which in 18 months or so, will lead to the construction of a new Constitution which will then be the basis for fresh elections that are free and fair.

In their statement the bishops said, “From the colonial times to the post-independent times, governments have failed to facilitate the construction of a society that is respectful of the dignity of all persons and guarantee security, justice and peace. Instead, economic, political and social exclusion has encouraged the development of racism, negative ethnicity, gender discrimination and pessimism for the youth.” The bishops said, “Politically, Zimbabwe has grown to be a deeply divided, unequal society where those in power work to protect their privileges by privatizing national state institutions and processes. The impartiality and national character of the executive, the judiciary, and the legislature have been compromised. We have seen the judges, magistrates; the police, the army and other security forces take more and more party political positions at the expense of the security and freedom of citizens.

“With the deepening of the political crisis, we have seen the growth of hate language in the media and at political gatherings culminating in intimidation, sexual abuse, rape, violence and gruesome killings of citizens.”

They called for an immediate halt to all intimidation and violence and said that if it recurs it should be “prosecuted swiftly in accordance with transparent and impartial justice.” The bishops said that all political prisoners should be vetted and released immediately. “They are not to be offered an amnesty since they have not been convicted of any crime,” said the statement. The Catholic leaders also urged for an end to “hate speech and hate language,” and said there should be an “immediate freeing of media space and promotion of free access to that space.” They further called for assistance to all internally displaced persons and assurance of their safety “to enable them to return to their homes, and the immediate lifting of the ban on the activities of NGOs [non-governmental organizations] and other civil society organizations to enable churches and civil society organizations to operate freely.”

In a commentary on the current political talks taking place in South Africa, the bishops said, “While we think that the ongoing negotiations are positive, we also think that they could be more inclusive in order to enhance their legitimacy and acceptance.”

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