Zimbabwe Review

Reflections on Zimbabwe

Human rights abuses: justice versus reconciliation

Posted by CM on July 24, 2008

For a long time there will be a lot of people in Zimbabwe who will want retribution against perpetrators of violence and other kinds of abuse in the last several years.

Many policemen, soldiers and members of various militia who are responsible for all sorts of abuses are widely known. In the event of a political settlement soon, what to do about them will be a thorny issue. Why the answer is not easy is yet another illustration of the complexity of The Zimbabwe Crisis.

“There can be no lasting political solution to the crisis in Zimbabwe without addressing past human rights violations,” Amnesty International is reported as saying. The report further said the international human rights group maintains that negotiations on power-sharing between the ruling and opposition parties should not result in pardons for human rights abusers.

On the surface it is hard to fault such a reasonable call for justice. For more than a century, as Rhodesia and more recently as ZImbabwe, the country has been a place of scattered, mostly low-level but vicious violence by one controlling group or another. At the negotiated end of each of the many stages of violence, the tendency has been to simply sweep the many lingering hurts and resentments under the carpet instead of giving them some kind of public airing in the interests of healing and true reconciliation.

As a result, the society now has generations of walking wounded whose psychological scars are un-recognised but which affect the country in many ways. The friendly, mild-mannered nature of the people that foreigners often remark on co-exists with the anger, resentment and many other effects of the many layers of oppression, brutality and violence the population has lived with for decades.

It is now widely recognised that individuals who have undergone severe physical or psychological trauma need intensive therapy to live ‘normally’ again. But the same logic is not always applied to groups or nations, perhaps because how to apply that therapy to them is not an easy question.

It seems obvious that part of the process of entrenching the sacredness of the idea of human rights in a society is to show the high costs of violating those rights. Clearly a worrying trend of official impunity has built up over the many decades of violence and official oppression by one group or another in Zimbabwe. Rights abusers have now got used to the idea that whenever a lull in one or another of the society’s orgies of violence is negotiated, it will almost automatically include amnesty for them.

A break must be put on this sense of impunity that the society has begun to take for granted and yet suffered so much from in many ways that are difficult to measure. But given Zimbabwe’s messy history, how can this be accomplished exactly? How far back do we go in calling perpetrators of violence to account for their actions?

The recent violence is the easiest to call for justice over, simply because of its raw freshness. But what about soldiers who took part in Gukurahundi massacres in the early 1980s? Should they now be called to account, or is that considered too far back, and if so, why? Should “we were just following orders” be grounds for absolution, or could it be argued that someone can go above and beyond “following orders” in his cruelty in a way that makes him personally accountable for abuses, rather than be covered by the ‘normal’ rules of conflict?

What about known perpetators of atrocities and other human rights abuses in the 1970s’ liberation war? That wasn’t that long ago, and many of the masterminds and actual commiters of abuse could still be tracked down, like Israel still does with Nazi war criminals from WWII. On what basis would rights abusers of today be prosecutable and those of previous ones in recent memory be left scot free?

I know the now very wealthy, now respected business family whose patriarch was given my late grandfathers’ many cattle in the first half of the 20th century when mass land and livestock dispossessions took place under the Rhodesian government. I wouldn’t mind joining in the call for justice if violence and dispossession going back that far was included.

Impunity is bad. Rhodesia and Zimbabwe have had too much of it in ways that harm healing and progress for the country. But that does not mean that agreeing on how to achieve a sense of ‘justice’ is at all easy. In weighing the relative merits of justice and moving forward, the latter is more important, even if doing so successfully partially depends on being seen to have achieved the former.

At the very least those many who have been abused, oppressed and dispossessed need to have their pain acknowledged in a way Zimbabwe has never seriously tried to do. But if ‘justice’ is taken to also mean ‘punishment,’ then Zimbabwe’s history is so messy and bloody that some of those who are very quick to insist on punishment may find they are thereby opening up a complicated can of worms they might well wish had been kept shut.

This is just another of the many difficult ways in which a final resolution of The Zimbabwe Crisis will take so much more than simply groups of politicians making deals with each other. If the many underlying long-term issues are not at least acknowledged, it is doubtful that a political settlement alone would be enough for Zimbabwe to make an abiding great leap forward in achieving true peace and reconciliation.

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