Political rights and civil liberties in Zimbabwe, including freedoms of assembly and association, have been largely eviscerated in recent years. President Robert Mugabe and his Zimbabwe African National Union–Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party have ruled the country since its independence in 1980. Following the defeat of a state-sponsored constitutional referendum in 2000, Mugabe’s government began a brutal and ongoing crackdown on the political opposition and independent civic associations. The country has since suffered a number of deeply flawed and violent elections, the passage of restrictive laws and security codes, thousands of politically motivated arrests and beatings, and the forced displacement of hundreds of thousands of people during a politically driven “slum clearance” campaign. In 2000, the government’s implementation of an accelerated land-reform program (including the seizure of thousands of white-owned commercial farms) precipitated the collapse of Zimbabwe’s once-robust economy, resulting in five-digit hyperinflation as well as severe shortages of basic foodstuffs and consumer goods by 2007. The situation deteriorated precipitously in 2008, with March elections marred by violence and a June presidential runoff featuring only one candidate, Robert Mugabe.
Freedom of Association
Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Zimbabwe are severely restricted. The Private Voluntary Organizations (PVO) Act, originally introduced by the Rhodesian government and revived in 2002, sets out registration and funding requirements for NGOs. Civic organizations must register with the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare, and the minister appoints a PVO Board, which has extensive powers to scrutinize organizations’ officers, finances, and activities. Organizations in violation of board standards may be fined, their registration revoked or amended, or their members imprisoned. In 2005, the finances of scores of NGOs were investigated by interministerial teams that included representatives of the Central Intelligence Organization. Parliament in 2004 passed the Non-Governmental Organizations Act, which bars the registration of foreign NGOs engaged in “issues of governance,” including human rights organizations, and bans domestic “governance” NGOs from receiving foreign funding. The act also expanded the definition of NGO to include religious and environmental organizations and private trusts, and created an NGO Council with more oversight powers than the PVO Board. Mugabe declined to sign the act at the time, but many of its provisions have been enforced.
The government routinely uses the state-owned media to threaten NGOs believed to be aligned with Western interests or the political opposition. In April 2007, the government threatened to deregister all NGOs with ties to Western countries, though no action was taken. Members of politically oriented NGOs are routinely arrested, imprisoned, and assaulted. Security forces have at times prevented humanitarian agencies from delivering aid in rural areas; in June 2008, the government ordered a halt to all nongovernmental humanitarian work, including the distribution of food aid.
The right to collective labor action is limited under the Labor Relations Amendment Act (LRAA), which allows the government to veto collective bargaining agreements that are deemed harmful to the economy. Although strikes are allowed in all but “essential” industries, they require onerous notification and arbitration procedures and are often declared illegal. Managers in all sectors are prevented from striking. The 2005 Labor Amendment Act prevents public-sector employees from joining or forming unions or engaging in collective bargaining, though these restrictions are not enforced. All unions must register with the Ministry of Public Service, Labor, and Social Welfare.
The independent Zimbabwean Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) has led resistance to Mugabe’s rule and was a driving force behind the formation of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), the main opposition bloc. The ZCTU has consequently become a target for repression, and its members have been routinely harassed both inside and outside the workplace. In recent years, several hundred ZCTU members have been arrested at demonstrations and meetings, and in 2007, security forces raided ZCTU offices during a countrywide crackdown on the political opposition. The government has created a rival trade-union umbrella organization, the Zimbabwe Federation of Trade Unions, to try to undermine the ZCTU, sometimes using violent tactics.
Freedom of Assembly
Freedom of assembly is severely restricted under the 2002 Public Order and Security Act (POSA). The act obliges organizers to give police seven days’ notice prior to any public meeting, and failure to do so can result in both criminal and civil charges. While the advance notice provisions do not explicitly require police permission, security forces routinely use POSA to declare meetings and demonstrations illegal, arrest and detain demonstrators, impose arbitrary curfews and bans, and obstruct public gatherings with roadblocks and riot police. Consequently, thousands of opposition activists (mostly from the MDC), members of civic organizations (particularly the National Constituent Assembly and Women of Zimbabwe Arise), and trade unionists have been arrested in the past five years.
Security forces have killed several demonstrators and routinely beat protesters and detainees. A series of ZCTU-led demonstrations in 2006 led to the arrest of 500 people across the country, including almost the entire ZCTU leadership. A number of the union leaders, president Lovemore Matombo and secretary-general Wellington Chibhebhe among them, were severely beaten while in custody. In 2007, police violently dispersed a large prayer meeting organized by the Save Zimbabwe Campaign in Harare; the meeting occurred during a three-month ban on political gatherings. Over 50 people were arrested, and many were badly beaten on site or in police custody, including MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai and National Constituent Assembly leader Lovemore Madhuku. One MDC leader, Gift Tandare, was shot dead. During the election period in 2008, the government blocked opposition rallies, repeatedly detained MDC leaders, and mounted a systematic campaign of violence in which dozens of activists were apparently killed and many more were beaten or driven into exile.