For Immediate Release: December 8, 2003
Contact: David Danzig (212) 845 5252

Zimbabwe Suspended Indefinitely
from Commonwealth

NEW YORK – Human Rights First welcomed the recent decision of the Commonwealth to maintain its suspension of Zimbabwe. Meeting in Abuja, Nigeria, the Commonwealth Heads of State and Government voted yesterday to renew Zimbabwe’s suspension, which was put in place in March 2002, following the country’s flawed presidential elections.

“This decision recognizes the serious nature of the crisis in Zimbabwe and the lack of genuine efforts by the government to respect the basic rights of its people,” said Neil Hicks, Director of Human Rights First’s Human Rights Defenders Program. “Commonwealth leaders are to be commended for upholding the human rights principles to which all members of the organization are committed.”

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe called the Commonwealth decision “unacceptable” and announced that Zimbabwe would withdraw from the organization immediately.

A Commonwealth Observer Group sent to Zimbabwe in March 2002 to monitor the country’s presidential election, reported that the election was “marred by a high level of politically motivated violence and intimidation” and that “thousands of Zimbabwean citizens were disenfranchised.” The Group concluded that conditions in Zimbabwe “did not adequately allow for a free expression of will by the electors.” Following this report, a Commonwealth committee composed of the prime minister of Australia and the presidents of Nigeria and South Africa decided to suspend Zimbabwe from the organization for one year. In March 2003, the decision on whether to lift the suspension was postponed until the matter could be discussed at the meeting of the Commonwealth Heads of State and Government in Abuja in December 2003.

The human rights situation in Zimbabwe has steadily deteriorated throughout 2002 and 2003, exacerbating a serious economic crisis. Local, regional and international organizations have documented pervasive serious abuses, including torture and political violence, arbitrary arrests and detention, politically motivated prosecutions, and heavy restrictions on freedom of expression, association and assembly. These rights violations are in contravention of the 1991 Harare Declaration, which pledges all members of the Commonwealth to work to ensure democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Nonetheless, several African leaders have continued to support Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and have called for the Commonwealth to lift its suspension of the country.

It is worth noting that at a meeting in Botswana organized by Human Rights First in August, representatives of human rights and civil society groups from seven African countries condemned human rights violations in Zimbabwe and called, among other things, for the Commonwealth to continue its suspension of Zimbabwe “until the government complies with the Harare Declaration and takes concrete steps to restore the rule of law, restores respect for human rights and holds perpetrators of human rights violations accountable.”

After the decision by Nigerian President Obasanjo not to invite Zimbabwe to the Abuja meeting, President Mugabe attacked the Commonwealth and labeled it under the control of white “racists.” Such comments, designed to split the Commonwealth and public opinion upon racial lines, are typical of the tactics used by Mugabe to deflect regional and international criticism of his human rights record. “By choosing to see through such posturing and by renewing Zimbabwe’s suspension, the Commonwealth states have provided crucial support to all those within Zimbabwe who are struggling to ensure respect for the basic rights of the Zimbabwean people,” commented Hicks. “It is essential that all Commonwealth states send the message that if one of its members ignores the obligations taken on when the Harare Declaration was adopted, it will not be supported by its neighbors and Commonwealth partners.”

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