By Lance Guma
The head of the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission (ZHRC) Professor Reginald Austin reportedly resigned on Friday citing the fact that the commission was not “independent and properly capacitated” to do its work in a credible manner.
A respected lawyer in Zimbabwe, Austin was the Dean of the Law Faculty at the University of Zimbabwe from 1982-1992 and also served as a commissioner in the Delimitation Commission of Zimbabwe from 1984-1992 before he was appointed in 2009 to lead the ZHRC.
Austin is quoted saying “The critical reason for my resignation is the legal framework, in particular Section 12 of the ZHRC Act, and Part XVIIIB of the Electoral Act, within which the ZHRC is expected, now and in the future, to carry out its mandate to ‘promote and protect human rights’ in Zimbabwe.
“As a National Human Rights Institution, the Commission must be independent and properly capacitated to comply with the international standards set by the Paris Principles for its credibility and recognition to participate as a peer in the international human rights community,” Austin said.
He said Constitutional Amendment 19, which created the Commission, “failed to provide for its independence” and the government had virtually left them in limbo with “no budget, no accommodation, no mobility, no staff and no implementing act or corporate legal status.”
Commenting on the resignation Deputy Justice Minister Obert Gutu said “The system has made sure that he (Austin) is frustrated into resigning before the commission even starts it’s real work.
“Professor Austin is an international human rights lawyer of impeccable credentials. He was the lead legal advisor to Joshua Nkomo’s ZAPU at the Lancaster House talks in 1979. I am completely gutted by his resignation…..Where to Zimbabwe? ….Will it get worse before it gets better…???” Gutu asked.
Many activists accused the ZHRC of being a paper tiger created to tick reform boxes. Although formed in 2009, the body was only given constitutional status in 2012 and even then a clause blocking it from investigating abuses before the violent election of June 2008 made the ZHRC as pointless as hot ice cream.
Critics say the commission must be accountable to Parliament, with its own resources, and not to the Minister of Justice (Patrick Chinamasa) who is a political appointee and has himself been accused of committing gross human rights abuses in his own constituency where he lost to an MDC-T MP.
Other members of the ZHRC remaining are Dr Ellen Sithole, Dr Joseph Kurebwa, Jacob Mudenda, Japhet-Ndabeni Ncube, Sheila Matindike, Elasto Mugwadi, Ona Jirira and Norma Niseni.