Yesterday, a debate took place in the Seanad on the current situation in Zimbabwe. Below is my own contribution to the proceedings:
On behalf of the Labour Party in this House I join my colleagues in what has been said. I especially welcome the clarity of the Minister’s address to the House when he rightly described the election as an obscene charade and stated clearly and without equivocation the Government’s rejection of this sham election. He correctly stated that the Members of the Oireachtas and the Irish people are rightly appalled by what has happened in Zimbabwe and the Government’s unequivocal position is that the results of last Friday’s vote cannot be regarded as legitimate or in any way constituting the democratic and free expression of the Zimbabwean people’s will. This is important point for us as politicians giving leadership.
The Minister also correctly said the principle of free and fair elections is a fundamental cornerstone of democracy. That is true, but another cornerstone of democracy is the rule of law. For years we have known that Robert Mugabe and his Government have no respect for the rule of law. I was in a privileged position this weekend. I have just returned from Belfast where I attended the World Bar Conference of the International Council of Advocates and Barristers, ICAB, which was held jointly in Belfast and Dublin. We had the great privilege of hearing from a Zimbabwean lawyer, Ms Beatrice Mtetwa, as reported in today’s newspapers. She informed the lawyers gathered from all over the common law world of the insanity and complete breakdown of any sense of respect for rule of law throughout the court system and the absence of respect for even remnants of an independent media. She gave an astonishing sense of a society which has completely disintegrated in terms of any recognisable features of a democracy as we understand it.
I ask the Leas-Chathaoirleach to allow me the indulgence to tell my colleagues of a unanimous resolution passed yesterday afternoon by lawyers gathered at this conference representing the bars of Australia, England, Wales, Hong Kong, Ireland, Namibia, Northern Ireland, Scotland, South Africa and Zimbabwe, being member bars of ICAB. I will briefly read the resolution because it isolates and identifies the key issues in Zimbabwe and points to something positive that can be done. Despite the despair there are some actions. The question we all asked our colleague from Zimbabwe at the weekend was whether there is anything lawyers, politicians, citizens and media people can do. There is a despair regarding the response that was forthcoming.
The resolution includes a number of points. First, as we have done here, is “to deplore the defiance by the Government of Zimbabwe of its human rights obligations under domestic and international law”. The second resolution is “to call upon the secretariats of the Southern African Development Community, the African Union [most importantly] and the United Nations to initiate all steps necessary to procure the return of the rule of law to Zimbabwe and respect by the Government of Zimbabwe for the rule of law”. This is a crucial point which the Minister’s speech touched on and he is correct. It is unusual to have to call on a government to respect the rule of law, but that is the case in Zimbabwe with a complete breakdown of the courts system and any respect for the rule of law.
The third point in the resolution is “to condemn the detention without trial of our colleague [lawyer and politician] Eric Matinenga, Member of Parliament of Zimbabwe and leader of the Harare Bar and the defiance [by the regime] of the order for his release granted on an urgent basis by the High Court”. The High Court ultimately released him but not before a major struggle to achieve it. Again there is complete defiance by the Government of Zimbabwe.
The fourth point is “to call upon the members and secretariat of the Southern African Development Community to ensure that independent legal observers are permitted to be present at all courts in Zimbabwe throughout the trials of members of the legal profession who are being prosecuted for alleged offences”. These are people who are representing clients in the courts of Zimbabwe and who are being prosecuted for criminal offences literally comprising the defence of citizens of Zimbabwe before the courts of Zimbabwe.
The fifth resolution is “to demand that the lawyers of Zimbabwe be permitted without intimidation or penalty to perform their duty to represent and defend their clients in accordance with the rule of law and ensure the entitlement of their clients to basic human rights”. This is not a cry for special privileges for lawyers. When lawyers are being intimidated and prevented from doing the job they are supposed to do, society suffers.
The sixth point is “to demand that the magistrates of Zimbabwe be allowed to adjudicate impartially and without intimidation on the cases which come before them”. We asked Ms Mtetwa whether she would suggest we include the wider judiciary in Zimbabwe and demand that all the judges in Zimbabwe be allowed to adjudicate impartially, but she said there would be no point because people who know in Zimbabwe have given up on the judges. The judges of the higher courts in Zimbabwe are so locked into this rotten regime that there is no point in asking for an independent approach by them. There is some hope in the lower courts and the magistrates and she agreed that we include this point. However, she said it would be a waste of time to ask for the higher courts of the Zimbabwean judiciary to exercise independence. This is a sad testament to what is happening there. The seventh resolution is “to demand that the Attorney-General of Zimbabwe independently and impartially exercise his powers to uphold the rule of law”.
The Minister made the point that the Government will do what it can through the EU, and I am sure it will, but is vital the maximum amount of pressure is brought to bear on those countries that can have an influence. South Africa has been mentioned many times by my colleagues. While we cannot presume to interfere with the African Union, our views must be made known to it. It must cease being a trade union for African presidents and act as a real organisation in defence of the democratic rights of the people of Zimbabwe.