African Commission Found that Zimbabwe Violated Fundamental Freedoms: Zimbabwe Must Immediately Implement the Commission’s Decision and Guarantee Better Human Rights Protection



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January 5, 2023

The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights recently issued a positive and precedent-setting decision in Communication 446/13 between Jennifer Williams, Magodonga Mahlangu, and Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) and the Republic of Zimbabwe (“the WOZA case”). Finding that the government of Zimbabwe violated the applicants’ rights to freedom of association, assembly, expression and their right to liberty, among other rights, the Commission urged the government to investigate, prosecute, and punish all state actors responsible for the violations. Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights (RFK Human Rights) and Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) represented the applicants in this case.

WOZA is an activist organization that mobilizes Zimbabweans to demand social justice through peaceful protests and public demonstrations. Over a ten year period between 2003 and 2013, the applicants were subjected to arbitrary arrests and detentions as reprisal for conducting public demonstrations in different parts of Bulawayo and Harare. In the days preceding a protest against incessant power outages, government agents raided WOZA’s offices, confiscated organizational materials, and targeted members of the organization thereby severely limiting their ability to carry out the activities of the organization. While the named applicants were the main targets of the government's repression, over 10,000 WOZA members have also been arbitrarily detained and/or attacked in the last 20 years.

Condemning the actions of the government, the African Commission applied its Guidelines on Freedom of Association and Assembly in Africa, which provide that “participating in and organizing assemblies is a right and not a privilege, and thus its exercise does not require the authorization of the State.” This decision sets an important precedent as it is the first time that a mechanism of the African human rights system has held that peaceful protests without prior authorization, even when required by domestic law, should enjoy a presumption of legality. The African Commission further reiterated that assemblies should not be automatically penalized due to failure to notify the State and the State has a duty to facilitate an environment conducive to the exercise of this right. This decision elevates the provisions of its Guidelines on notification regimes from persuasive guidance for States to binding interpretation of States obligations under Article 11 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights.

“This is an important decision and a huge win for the courageous WOZA members and other defenders who experienced immense suffering while defending the right to protest. The decision gives jurisprudential backing to the Commission’s Guidelines on Freedom of Association and Assembly in Africa, which provides that protests do not require authorization from the State. We look forward to jointly developing an action plan with the government to form an independent body to fully implement the decision,” said Jenni Williams, Executive Director at WOZA.

Prior to approaching the African Commission, the applicants had challenged their arbitrary arrests and detentions before the domestic courts, which culminated in a 2014 Supreme Co