Advocating Against Forced Displacement in Zimbabwe

Published: 1 Sep 2005

Refugee Rights News
Volume 2, Issue 3
September 2005

About May 19, 2005, the government of Zimbabwe’s began what it called “Operation Murambatsvina,” or “Operation Drive Out Trash.” In the process as many as 700,000 Zimbabweans were robbed of their homes and livelihoods, in a forceful internal displacement of tremendous scale and ferocity.

The aim of the operation, reminiscent of colonial era segregation and social exclusion, was to “clean up” urban areas and deal with illegal trade.

In a meeting hosted by Zimbabwe’s National Association of Non Governmental Organizations (NANGO), the Minister of Local Government Dr. Chombo claimed the operation was necessitated by the multitude of illegal activities going on in the cities, illegal buildings, vending, and illegal dealers in foreign currency.

Though the attempt to bring law and order to Zimbabwe’s urban areas may have possessed a veneer of legal justification, there have been numerous criticisms, both national and international about the way in which the operation was put into practice and the widespread displacement that it caused.

It was reported that the evictions were carried out without notice and that security forces used excessive force, burning homes, destroying property and beating people. In fact, the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) claimed that 22,000 people were arbitrarily arrested at the height of the Operation. As of late May 2005, thousands of families had been rendered homeless by the destruction of temporary housing and without livelihoods and support services by the knocking of flea markets, market stalls and clinics. In one single day, May 26, more than 10,000 people were forcibly driven from their homes, for example, in the informal settlement of Hatcliffe Extension in the northern region of Harare. Those driven from their homes were told that they would find village heads to provide them with land and food. But as one displaced person, Mthulisi Ndiweni, recalled, “the villagers thought we were thieves who wanted to steal from their homes.” But with the police threatening to kill him if he returned to the city, he was caught with nowhere to run.

ZLHR reaches out to the international community

As Operation Murambatsvina progressed in the months of May and June, many local and international NGOs became involved. ZLHR from the beginning had been speaking out against the Operation and focusing on advocating for the rights of those affected.

On June 9, the organization called for the help of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. Arnold Tsunga, the Director of ZLHR, appealed to Sanji M. Monageng, the African Commission’s Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other forms of Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment, as well as Tom Bahame Nyanduga, the African Commission’s Special Rapporteur on Refugees, Asylum Seekers and Internally Displaced Persons, to intervene to end the forced evictions and destruction of homes. ZLHR pointed out that the Operation had violated many of the rights guaranteed in the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights including the rights to freedom of movement and residence, the right to health, the right to education and the obligation of the government to protect the family. In the appeal, ZLHR compared the situation unfolding in Zimbabwe to the concentration camps employed during the colonial era in Zimbabwe and apartheid South Africa.

ZLHR’s actions have had support from the international community. International NGOs such as the International Crisis Group and Human Rights Watch have reported on the situation. The United Nations also got involved to express concern at the “rapidly deteriorating situation of respect for civil, political, economic and social rights in Zimbabwe”. Soon after Anna Tibaijuka was sent as the UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy to observe and report on the mass evictions and the general humanitarian situation in the country.

Tibaijuka has since reported on her observations of Zimbabwe’s urban areas, describing the destruction of shantytowns and informal markets as having “unleashed chaos and untold human suffering.” This report served as the basis for a determination by the Representative of the Secretary-General on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons, Walter Kalin, that the government of Zimbabwe’s actions were “incompatible with international law.”

Zimbabwe bites back

President Mugabe of Zimbabwe shrugged off the criticism, accusing international critics of grossly exaggerating the impact of the operation and defending the operation as one which has not only eliminated illegal structures, but in fact also restored the dignity and hope of displaced persons.

To make matters worse, on August 30, 2005, the Parliament passed Amendment Bill No. 17, which weakens the protections of freedom of movement recognized by the Zimbabwean Constitution. In particular the Bill amends Section 22 of the Constitution to allow the government to restrict freedom of movement “in the national interest,” a move which can be read as trying to retroactively silence critics of Operation Murambatsvina. Ironically the Bill also removes the guarantee that the government will not restrict the rights of Zimbabweans to leave the country. This opens the door to the imposition of exit visa requirements and preventing critics of the regime from seeking asylum in other countries.

As the government of Zimbabwe continues this campaign to control the movement of it population, forced migrants advocates need to keep the pressure on the authorities not to replicate these violations.

Regions: Southern Africa
Type: Advocacy