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UN High Commissioner for human rights’ visit to Zimbabwe highlights the indivisibility of human rights

On Friday 25 May 2012, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, issued a statement at a press conference in Harare reflecting on her 5 day mission to Zimbabwe.

This was an important occasion in which the High Commissioner trod a fine line between acknowledging the positive developments in Zimbabwe, with regard to human rights, whilst highlighting remaining areas in which no or little progress had been made.

So, for example on women’s rights, Ms Pillay noted the fact that half the country’s Supreme Court judges are female and that there were increasing numbers of women appointed as ministers and senior public officials. But, she also highlighted the increase in maternal mortality and the widespread sexual, domestic and politically motivated violence committed against women with impunity. During her visit, Ms Pillay also underlined the need for decisive leadership to reform the legal system in relation to property rights for widows, early marriages, sexual violence, marital rape and commercial sex work.

In the area of LGBT rights, Ms Pillay was unwavering in her criticism:

I have also been disturbed by the country’s legislation on the subject of LGBT (sexual orientation). The all-important international principle of non-discrimination is included in the current Constitution, as well as in international treaties to which Zimbabwe is a party. There can be no justification for violence, harassment or stigmatisation. And criminalisation of any group because of their sexual orientation can lead to impediments to their accessing basic services – in other words result in clear-cut discrimination – including treatment for HIV. Sexual relations between consenting adults is not a matter for the courts. (my emphasis)

Ms Pillay’s comments on women’s rights, and the rights of LGBT persons are pertinent. A day earlier, President Mugabe gave a speech at a gender rights conference in Harare in which he uttered a muddled point of view on these matters. In his speech, President Mugabe reportedly expressed doubt as to the extent to which women will ever be equally represented in decision-making structures in Zimbabwe – “Our customs look down on women as inferior. Men pay cattle and money to get a wife and expect women to obey them. Women will surely lose. Men say that women are not as knowledgeable as us. The attitude of men still despises women,” Mugabe reportedly said. Yet, President Mugabe was quick to promote women’s rights as an argument for continued discrimination against LGBT persons, reportedly stating that same-sex marriages interferes with women’s rights since it somehow deprives them of their sole right to bear children and will lead to “extinction”.

The rights of LGBT persons are highly politicised in the run-up to the elections in Zimbabwe. During the High Commissioner’s visit, both President Mugabe and the Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development, Patrick Chinamasa, strongly emphasised that Zimbabwe will continue to criminalise same-sex sexual conduct.  It is therefore important that a high ranking official such as Ms Pillay was willing to stick to her resolve to promote the rights of all people, including LGBT persons. In her lecture at the University of Zimbabwe on the 24th of May, she emphasised that UN Member States, including Zimbabwe, agreed at the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in 1993 that “all human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent and interrelated.”

The High Commissioner can be commended for sticking to this principle by emphasising the importance of all rights, for all people, during her visit, including the right to be free from torture and other cruel and inhuman punishment, the right to participate in free and fair elections and socio-economic rights. Indeed, no human right can be achieved fully without the enjoyment of other rights.

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