It is fitting that the International Days for Human Rights and for Anti-Corruption come together because protecting human rights and guarding against corruption are inextricably entwined. Throughout the world, most human rights violations are committed by authoritarian regimes and dictatorships and totalitarian states which suppress human rights in order to maintain themselves in power.
In those regimes and states, it is the few at the top who reap the benefit of their countries’ wealth, largely through nepotism and corruption. Corruption, by siphoning off the countries’ wealth to an elite, deprives ordinary citizens of their rights to health, food, livelihood, education, housing, and other basic rights that enable every person to live with dignity.
The themes for both Human Rights Day and Anti-corruption Day incorporate the word “Recover” which relates to the COVID-19 pandemic and the changes it has brought to people and countries around the world – and suggests how ensuring basic human rights and fighting corruption can contribute to repairing the damage the pandemic has caused and may still cause. The theme is valid, not only for the 10th and 11th December but also for the foreseeable future.
Human Rights Day
It was on 10th December 1948 that the United Nations (UN) General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights [UDHR] in 1948 [link]. It was drafted by representatives with different legal and cultural backgrounds from all regions of the world and outlines the fundamental rights of all human beings that must be protected universally.
The thinking underlying the theme “Recover Better! Stand Up for Human Rights” was chosen to reflect the present reality of the COVID-19 pandemic as outlined in a statement by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights:
As the world came to a standstill this year, each and every one of us was forced to reflect on the world we live in and the world we look forward to. The time has come for us to re-start, to recover, and to revisit the core principles of human rights as envisioned by the pioneers of the UDHR. As each and every country takes on the ‘new normal’, human rights should be at the forefront of the recovery plans of every government. We face three very different possible futures:
· We can emerge from this crisis in an even worse state than when it began – and be even less well prepared for the next shock to our societies.
· We can struggle mightily to get back to normal – but normal is what brought us to where we are today.
· Or we can recover better.
The medical vaccines that are being developed will hopefully eventually deliver us from COVID-19 … But they will not prevent or cure the socio-economic ravages that have resulted from the pandemic, and aided its spread. But there is a vaccine against hunger, poverty, inequality, and possibly – if it is taken seriously – to climate change, as well as to many of the other ills that face humanity. … The name of that vaccine is human rights. Its core ingredients are embedded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, whose 72nd anniversary we celebrate tomorrow, on Human Rights Day.
Lockdown and Human Rights in Zimbabwe
In March this year Zimbabwe announced lockdown measures under the Public Health Act. Whilst some curtailment of human rights are permitted in a public health emergency – the right to travel, etc. – the Zimbabwe government also used lockdown to unnecessarily stifle other rights. Below are a few examples.
· Nearly 2,000 people were arrested during the first week of lockdown for not observing lockdown regulations – this was in the absence of sufficient public education about COVID-19. Most arrests were made by police or army units who were not themselves obeying COVID-19 regulations, and those arrested were piled into lorries and taken to police cells where there were no precautions against COVID-19.
· Stopping demonstrations even if people were following COVID-19 precautions. The police cracked down on peaceful protesters on July 31, allegedly injuring 16 people. At least 60 protesters were arrested, among them the award-winning novelist Tsitsi Dangarembga and the opposition MDC Alliance spokesperson, Fadzayi Mahere.
· Thousands of Zimbabweans lost their sources of livelihoods as municipal workers “cleaned up”, i.e. removed vendors and their stalls from urban areas.
· All elections due in 2020 are suspended, ostensibly to prevent the spread of COVID-19 but in clear violation of the Constitution. Yet many other countries have managed to conduct both presidential and national elections during the pandemic. This has in particular affected opposition parties as, with the removal of so many of their councillors and MPs, elections are a must.
· In common with other countries Zimbabwe has seen a sharp rise in gender-based violence during lockdown, emphasising existing fault lines in our society.
Zimbabwe signed the United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) [link] on 20 February 2004 and ratified it on 8 March 2007. Corruption is one of the worst evils that afflicts our society, because it not only deprives citizens of resources that legitimately belong to them, but also undermines the trust in public institutions and the government. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought new opportunities for misappropriation of public funds and services. The pandemic has highlighted existing problems of lack of transparency, accountability and administrative fairness and efficiency.
The State has also used COVID-19 as excuse for arresting anti-corruption activists. On July 20 the police arrested and detained Hopewell Chin’ono, an awarding-winning journalist who had been exposing high-level corruption, and Jacob Ngarivhume, leader of the political group Transform Zimbabwe who called for a demonstration against corruption on July 31. The State claimed it was a political demonstration, but whichever way it was interpreted – anti-corruption or political – the Constitution enshrines the right to demonstrate. COVID-19 does not take away this right – it merely means that precautions have to be taken. The State did not wait for the demonstration but arrested people pre-emptively, violating their human rights and particularly their right to protest against corruption.
There is no doubt that Zimbabwe is well endowed with natural resources and there should be enough coming into the fiscus to ensure a decent standard of living for all. Unfortunately so much wealth – particularly that derived from mining – has been “diverted” to benefit the few that most of the population are poor. When unions try to protect ordinary workers their leaders are arrested. Although the government has affirmed its desire to fight corruption, there seems to be a lack of political will to follow this through – and for those in high places and with the right connections there is, de facto, a “catch and release policy” We need a more coherent enforcement system that interlinks investigation, arrest and prosecution.
The Zimbabwe Anti-Corruption Commission has admitted corruption is rampant in the country, including in state institutions. Until transparency and accountability are established in these institutions and in the business dealings of the State and financial institutions, the country’s wealth will not benefit the generality of the population.
Human Rights and Corruption are inextricably linked. The world including Zimbabwe has in a sense been on hold during the COVID-19 pandemic; soon will be the time to recover and recover better and with integrity. We all need to be planning on how this can be done. What good is there in having a good Constitution and good laws without good practice? What is the use of being a well-endowed nation if our people are poor? Human rights abuses must be investigated and corruption punished without fear or favour.