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After Constitution Vote, Zimbabwe Faces Human Rights Challenges

  • Anita Powell

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe talks to the press after casting his vote during the country's referendum in the capital Harare, March, 16, 2013.

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe talks to the press after casting his vote during the country's referendum in the capital Harare, March, 16, 2013.

Zimbabwe’s people have approved a new constitution which paves the way for presidential elections.

The charter, which contains a bill of rights and imposes term limits for the president and certain security officials, is supposed to give more power to citizens in the southern African nation.

However, the vote was almost immediately followed by arrests of high-profile opponents of President Robert Mugabe. Critics accuse the government of cracking down on civil society groups, a clear sign, they say, that things are getting worse, not better.

Officials who campaigned in favor of the constitution said it is an opportunity for Zimbabweans to finally have their own charter after decades of using a document created by their former colonial ruler.

Election officials said Tuesday that about 95 percent of voters approved the new charter. Observers said the vote was peaceful and the results credible, though Mugabe banned Western observers from monitoring the vote.

“Anybody who has read this constitution will agree with me that the bill of rights in this constitution will measure up to any constitution in the world," says Eric Matinenga, the nation’s minister of constitutional and parliamentary affairs. "So we can be happy as Zimbabweans that we have managed to adopt this draft.”

But beneath this liberal document lies a fundamental truth: a constitution is only as strong as the government that upholds it.

On Sunday, police arrested Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai's chief legal adviser and three members of his staff. Then they arrested the adviser’s lawyer when she showed up at his home, and charged her with “obstruction of justice.” Police then refused to heed a high court order to release her by midnight Sunday.

Tiseke Kasambala, Africa Advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, views those arrests, and other signs of election-related violence, as a signal the constitution may not change anything.

“Zimbabweans may have more rights on paper, but the conditions on the ground have not improved at all," Kasambala says. "In fact, the space for civic activism and political activism is narrowing as the country goes towards possible elections later in the year. Attacks on civil society organizations have increased. In fact, since December, we have seen an escalation in police harassment, arrest and rape of officers of civil society organizations.”

The constitution’s promoters have noted several important changes, including presidential term limits of two five-year terms. But that provision is not retroactive, meaning Mugabe, who is 89, could serve for another decade.

The charter also eliminates the prime minister's post held by Tsvangirai, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) leader who is Mugabe's main political rival. The two men are expected to face off again in a presidential election slated for later this year.

Despite the arrests, a South Africa-based spokesman for the MDC says the constitution has created something priceless: hope.

"After this constitution, maybe in the next three or four months, we are then going for elections," Kwanele Moyo. "Come the election time, I promise, I can promise, there will be a new government. And this new government is going to respect the democratic values of the society. And that’s going to be the new MDC government.”

Zimbabweans living in South Africa, like Moyo, often say that in Zimbabwe they were not able to speak out against Mugabe’s government. But in a way, the nation’s voters did just that.

The official results of the Saturday referendum voting mean that more than half of them stayed home, an absence that may send its own message.

VOA's Sebastian Mhofu contributed to this report.

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