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US organisations warn Mnangagwa against crackdown on civic space

Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights (formerly the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, or RFK Center), an American nonprofit human rights advocacy organisation, has warned President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s regime against enacting laws meant to crackdown on civic space in Zimbabwe.

Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights was named after United States Senator Robert F. Kennedy in 1968, a few months after his assassination.

The organisation cited the enactment of the Private Voluntary Organisations Amendment Bill as one of the measures put by the Zimbabwean authorities to curtail the civic space by restricting the work of non-governmental organisations.

It urged the government to desist from targeting and negatively profiling civil society organisations, “which provide invaluable services to the people of Zimbabwe and play a vital role in ensuring good governance in the country”.

They further stated that, “During the just concluded 73rd Ordinary Session of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, state representatives from Zimbabwe maligned civil society organizations and their work with a view to intimidate and silence them.

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In particular, they made disparaging comments in response to a statement by International Services for Human Rights, Defend Defenders as well as Zimbabwe Lawyers of Human Rights (ZLHR) highlighting the well-documented human rights situation in the country, including concerns on the deeply-flawed Private Voluntary Organizations (PVO) Amendment Bill.

“Such attacks against civil society actors violate the rights to freedom of conscience, expression, and association, which are protected by the Zimbabwean Constitution, as well as international law instruments binding on the country.”

The group further accused the Zanu-PF government of limiting the work of civil society organisations.

“Under the administration of President Mnangagwa, the Zimbabwe government has increasingly restricted the capacity of civil society to operate and continued down a dangerous path towards the near total closure of civic space.

“State authorities have engaged in repressive attacks on activists, journalists, human rights defenders, opposition party leaders and critical voices from all sections of society.

“Civil society organizations have decried the worrying trend of arbitrary arrests and detention; judicial capture and intimidation, as well as other forms of repression aimed at stifling dissent and resulting in a chilling effect.

“As part of the crackdown on civic space, the government introduced the PVO Amendment Bill which confers unfettered discretionary powers on the executive arm of government to overregulate and interfere in non governmental organizations’ governance and operations.

“Civil society organizations have expressed their concerns over the PVO Amendment Bill’s contravention of national, regional, and international standards of freedom of association, expression and assembly.

“In December 2021, four United Nations Special Rapporteurs sent a joint communication to President Mnangagwa emphasizing that the Bill granted unchecked discretion to the government to target, deregister, and ban organizations and not compliant with Zimbabwe’s treaty obligations as articulated in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

“While the controversial bill continues to be considered, the government has sustained its attacks on civil society organizations. Staffers of Transparency International, National Association of Youth Organizations and the Institute for Women Development have been arrested at different times during their meetings. The government has also arrested officers of the Zimbabwe Elections Support Network during a voters’ education event in Mbare.”

The organisations demanded that the government of Zimbabwe stop disparaging civil society organizations and ensure that CSOs can fully and independently operate throughout the country in accordance with the Constitution and international law.

They further stated that the judiciary should guard its independence and fulfil its constitutional mandate and protects the fundamental rights and freedoms of civil society activists and human rights defenders in adjudicating cases before it.

“The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and other intergovernmental bodies must take steps to guarantee greater respect and protection for civil society organizations including by condemning the use of inflammatory language by state parties during their sessions.

“Regional and international communities should continue to put pressure on President Mnangagwa and other state officials to jettison the worrying sections of the PVO Amendment Bill, reflect the recommendations presented by civil society, and promote a thriving civic space within the country,” they said.