Subliminal terror? Human rights violations and torture in Zimbabwe during 2008.

Although human rights violations have taken place in Zimbabwe over the past three decades, the major focus in this monograph will be upon the period 2000 to 2008, with special reference to 2008. It is evident from reports published over the years that there have been serious violations of human rights prior to this time, both during the Liberation War, and during the 1980s in Matabeleland and the Midlands, and, of course, neither of these two periods should be excluded from any process of accountability. Indeed, Zimbabweans have themselves already argued that there should be a full accounting for all human rights violations since the original occupation of the country in 19th century1. The kinds of accounting will obviously be very different for the various time periods: prior to 1965, it would seem that a Truth Commission process would be most appropriate, whilst, subsequent to this time, there have been strong arguments that a Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation Commission would be the appropriate mechanism.

However, the major reason for selecting the period from 2000 onwards is to reflect a number of developments. Firstly, the UN Convention Against Torture only came into force in 1984, whilst the Rome Statute for the International Criminal Court only became operative in 2002. Thus, as regards international jurisdiction, no case of torture prior to 1984 could be considered by an international court, and no case regarding crimes against humanity can be considered in respect of events prior to July 2002, although the UN Security Council could act on its own as it did in the cases of the Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. Of course, there could be no international objection to Zimbabwe examining all previous human rights violations through the setting up of its own domestic tribunal. After all, domestic remedy is a considerable improvement over international remedy, and indeed international remedy is there mostly to provide for situations where domestic remedy is not possible, for whatever reason

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Thoughts on national healing

Civil society has long anticipated the current dynamics and questions facing those concerned with transitional justice in Zimbabwe. In 2003, against the background of inter-party talks about possible transition, a Symposium was held in Johannesburg, which made comprehensive recommendations on the ways to manage the consequences of organized violence and torture, including ways in which truth, accountability and healing should take place.

However, it is apparent that the national situation has changed (and deteriorated) considerably since 2003. A strong argument can be made that Zimbabwe now conforms to the kind of situation currently termed a “complex emergency”. In the context of economic collapse, the collapse of all supportive services [health and social welfare], severe food shortages, and mass violence, Zimbabwe resembles a country at war, but without the obvious features of war. The types of trauma reported, especially in the past five years, conform in most respects to those seen in obvious times of war – the profiles for the pre-Independence period and Matabeleland in the period 1980 to 1987 are markedly similar to that seen nationally since 2000. Certainly, the mental health consequences seem wholly similar to what would be seen in other complex emergencies where there has been obvious war.

The most manifest effects are physical, seen in illnesses and injuries, which may be short-lived, but also may lead to long-term disability. However, the most persistent consequences will be psychological, and especially if the trauma was deliberately inflicted. Here four points should be emphasized:

 Firstly, the most probable long-term consequence of experiencing organized violence and torture is the development of a psychological disorder.
 Secondly, the probability of psychological disorder following organized violence and torture increases with the frequency of experiencing physical harm, such as torture.
 Thirdly, the probability of psychological disorder increases with the number of exposures to trauma such as organized violence and torture.
 Fourthly, whilst men are probably the most common primary victims of OVT, women and children are disproportionately the most common secondary victims, and certainly secondary victims are much more common than primary victims.

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