Amnesty International Investigates Civility In Zimbabwe

General Irene Khan, who leads Amnesty International, recently traveled to Zimbabwe on a fact-finding mission to investigate reports of human rights abuses and to meet with government officials there. Khan's trip marked the first time any leader from London-based advocacy group visited Zimbabwe. She sits with host Michel Martin to share observations from Zimbabwe and tells why the human rights cause there is such a delicate matter.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

It's our Thursday International Briefing, and in a few minutes we'll hear about a disturbing new report by South African researchers that says that one in four men there has committed rape. And we have a rare interview with Bill Withers about a remarkable concert he performed in 1974. It's the subject of a new documentary, "Soul Power." That's all coming up. But first to Zimbabwe. Now the world's attention has turned to Iran now, but a year ago Zimbabwe was in the throes of political violence over long-time President Robert Mugabe's repressive rule.

International pressure led to a power sharing arrangement with former opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai. We heard from Mr. Tsvangirai last week. Today, we're going to hear from Amnesty International Secretary General Irene Khan who just returned from Zimbabwe. It was the first visit by the head of the Human Rights watchdog group to Zimbabwe. And she joins us now from Geneva. Welcome, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Ms. IRENE KHAN (Secretary General, Amnesty International): Thank you for inviting me.

MARTIN: First, would you set the table for us and when you talk of human rights abuses, what are you referring to?

Ms. KHAN: Well, what we found in Zimbabwe was that although the level of political violence has gone down compared to last year there remains a very fragile human rights situation. Lawyers, trade unionists, journalists, human rights defenders are being threatened. There is a climate of intimidation prevailing. Peaceful demonstrators are being arrested. And in fact, even as we were holding our press conference a group of women who were demonstrating outside parliament house were arrested. And most importantly of all, we did not find political will among all members of government to make the reform of the security sector that is absolutely essential.

MARTIN: Were you able to meet with President Mugabe face to face?

Ms. KHAN: No, we had - I had asked for a meeting with him, but I did not meet with him. However, I met with his deputy, the vice president and senior members of his government.

MARTIN: What was their attitude toward you, if I may ask? When you raised these questions, what did they say? Did they deny that this occurs? Did they say it was all a misunderstanding? What was their attitude?

Ms. KHAN: Well, their response was that yes, political violence had taken place. And then depending on whom you spoke to in the government, there were different responses. Some people acknowledged it but said that they had not authorized that violence. Others acknowledged it and even went so far as to say that it was deliberately perpetrated in order to crush the opposition. And still others felt that all they had to do was just dig their heels in and let time go by and nothing would change.

MARTIN: Did you find it noteworthy that there was even an acknowledgement that this violence had taken place. I mean, during the campaign as I think many people tried to cover it was quite difficult, as you pointed out given the way journalists were treated both foreign and local, that there was a denial that this was even occurring.

Ms. KHAN: Well, there are a number of people now both in the ZANU-PF side of the government as well as in the MDC side of the government who do acknowledge. I mean, there is open acknowledgement yes, violence took place. But there are differences of views as to what to do about it. In particular, there is very little interest in addressing impunity. And many of those who perpetrated the violence remain in power. We talked to low level and middle level police officers and were told that they had been instructed by their senior officers not to take up complaints of MDC activists who had been attacked last year.

MARTIN: If I could just clarify, MDC is the Movement for Democratic Change. That is the party that had been in the oppositions, now part of the unity government, it is led by Morgan Tsvangirai. And President Mugabe leads the ZANU-PF, which has been the ruling party for sometime. So you're telling us that local police officers have been - said just ignore these complaints, just don't do anything about it?

Ms. KHAN: Exactly. Police officers have been told to ignore it and the victims that we spoke to told us that when they went to complain to the police nothing was happening. So there's a fair amount of anger and frustration at the level of those who had suffered last year, that there's very little change.

MARTIN: Were you able to speak freely with whomever you chose? Apart from President Mugabe, who did not meet with you, were you able to freely move about? Did you feel you're able to speak freely with whoever you wanted to talk to?

Ms. KHAN: Well, we did move fairly freely. We had access to everyone that we wanted to see. However, people were afraid. People were afraid, and there were times when we had to cover our tracks, so to speak, so that the authorities would not find out who we were talking to. So clearly there's a lot of fear, a lot of intimidation going on. Also a feeling among people that because the security infrastructure is untouched that violence could recur.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with Irene Khan. She is the secretary general of Amnesty International. She recently returned from a fact finding trip to Zimbabwe. She is the first secretary general of Amnesty to visit the country. You were able to meet with prime minister and former opposition leader, now member of the unity government, Morgan Tsvangirai this week during his visit to London. What was your sense from him? Do you feel he has any authority to address the issues that concern you?

Ms. KHAN: I, of course, raised with him our findings from the mission and his answer was that he fully acknowledged and was aware that the situation - human rights situation was fragile. He said to me, I will not defend what is indefensible. He also was very clear that he is totally committed to ensuring that the human rights provisions of the agreement that they had signed, the two parties had signed, that he would do his best to implement those promises in the agreement.

I think the important thing will be to watch closely to see what happens in the next four months. They would be critical. They're beginning a process of consultation on a new constitution. How much space there is to debate, discuss, disagree during that consultation process will actually show whether or not Tsvangirai is able to bring about change.

MARTIN: But you have no doubt about his commitment. You don't have any doubt about his intention to uphold democratic reforms. You just, the question is whether he is able to, is that right?

Ms. KHAN: Well, he certainly recognizes the challenge he faces. He said he got into government in order to bring about change. Now, he's a man who suffered political violence himself. He knows how bad the situation is. And when he says that he will try to do his best, of course, we have to take him at his word. The question however is whether the political structure in Zimbabwe will allow him to do so?

The ZANU-PF, that's Mugabe's party, is very much in control of all the security side of the government. Tsvangirai, the prime minister who was until recently in political opposition, is in charge of the social sector. So his approach is to try to build the country up, to improve the health, education, food situation, and hope that people will support him.

MARTIN: And to that point, during his visit to England on Monday he was actually booed by some expatriates in London. Here's a short clip of Prime Minister Tsvangirai urging Zimbabweans to come home. Here it is and you can hear the response.

Prime Minister MORGAN TSVANGIRAI (Zimbabwe): What is our message to Zimbabweans…

(Soundbite of booing)

Prime Minster TSVANGIRAI: Let me speak here and I'll set it boldly that Zimbabweans must come home.

(Soundbite of applause)

MARTIN: And it was - he got some applause and some booing and some heckling, I think one might say. It was also followed by these chants. Here it is.

(Soundbite of chanting)

Unidentified Group: Mugabe must go, Mugabe must go, Mugabe must go.

MARTIN: And if you can't hear, people are chanting - Mugabe must go, Mugabe must go. The question then would be Ms. Khan, based on what you observe there, people question whether it's safe for them to come home. They question whether people can safely return. Do you have any assessment of that?

Ms. KHAN: Well, as I said, the situation, the human rights situation is fragile. Things are very grim economically and socially. The education system is in crisis, the health system collapsed, housing is poor, jobs are scarce. So the economic situation on the ground is very bad. The security situation is also very uncertain. So, I think the issue of people returning in large numbers is just not on at the moment. Even in Tsvangirai's own party, the grassroots activists are very worried and skeptical because they are still being threatened everyday.

MARTIN: We've reported on - many news outlets have reported on just the dire economic conditions in Zimbabwe over the course of the many months. One of the issues was that the ZANU-PF and the ruling government was using food aid, humanitarian aid to reward supporters and to punish opponents. Do you believe there is evidence of what was alleged that humanitarian assistance of whatever kind - whether it was food, whether it was any kind of support, health aid, were being parceled out on the basis of political affiliation? Were you able to assess that question?

Ms. KHAN: Yes, yes. Amnesty International has evidence to suggest that the food distribution system was manipulated by Mugabe's regime to ensure that food did not reach political dissidents. And even now, farm invasions are continuing. While we were there, we heard that since the beginning of the year about 2,800 farm households have been affected. And these are not just farm owners but also farm workers who are being affected. In some cases, the farmland is being occupied forcibly.

We also heard stories where just now, you know, the tobacco crop has been harvested. And political activists from Mugabe's party would just turn up and take the crop and go away. But the type manipulation that took place last year doesn't seem so apparent this year.

MARTIN: Now this was your first visit to Zimbabwe as secretary general of Amnesty. Have you ever been before?

Ms. KHAN: No. I haven't been there before. But Amnesty International has actually been working on the situation in Zimbabwe for the last 40 years. And what has struck, what is really striking about Zimbabwe is that there has never been accountability for human rights abuses. There's a culture of impunity that is totally entrenched. And it's very, very important that Tsvangirai stand up to that and insist that impunity be addressed.

MARTIN: How should we interpret the fact that you were able to make this visit at all? What - give us your sense going forward of what you envision?

Ms. KHAN: Yeah, I think, as I said, the situation is grim. But it's not hopeless. I think the very fact that we were able to go in, we were able to meet people, we were not stopped from meeting people or even holding a press conference in Harare, those are all positive signs. But of course, there's a long, long way to go. And therefore our message to donors is, invest in Zimbabwe in humanitarian aid. Don't stop humanitarian aid. But at the same time, keep the pressure on.

And our very strong message to African governments is that they must work with the rest of the international community. There must be one strong single message going to Mugabe that while the international community will stand by with the people and assist them, the government must show some clear signs of change.

MARTIN: Secretary general of the London-based human rights watchdog group Amnesty International. She joined us from Geneva. Irene Khan, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Ms. KHAN: Thank you.

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