Our Voices

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

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 Court ruling upholding the applicants’ constitutional right to conduct peaceful protests. However, the Zimbabwean government continued to violate the applicants’ rights following this ruling, charging the applicants subsequently under the Zimbabwe Criminal Code for disorderly conduct in a public place and criminal nuisance. In an effort to prevent further government interference with peaceful assemblies in the lead up to the 2013 elections, the applicants sought intervention and relief from the African Commission.

“The recommendations of the African Commission in the WOZA case remain relevant as we continue to witness violations of the rights to freedom of assembly and association with impunity. The Government of Zimbabwe must act in good faith and fulfill its obligations in the African Charter and hold those responsible for human rights violations accountable,” said Roselyn Hanzi, Executive Director at ZLHR.

In addition to finding violations of the rights to freedom of expression, association, and assembly, the African Commission held that the Republic of Zimbabwe breached its obligations under Articles 1, 2, 3(2), and 6 of the African Charter. These sections of the Charter provide for the obligation of State Parties to recognize and give full effect to its provisions: ensure inclusive enjoyment of human rights and guarantee equal protection of the law. The African Commission urged the government to “promptly and independently investigate, prosecute, and punish” those responsible for the violations and “provide redress” to the applicants. Moreover, the government is urged to “implement all domestic laws, policies and practices as well as international and regional standards, for the protection and facilitation of the right to engage in peaceful protest and public demonstration” and “carry out human rights training to Police and Public Officials.”

“We welcome the African Commission’s decision in the WOZA case, especially at a time when civic space is being severely limited by governments across the region. It is important for the premier human rights mechanism in Africa to take bold stances in defense of human rights, strengthen regional jurisprudence on the right to protest, and to urge the State to provide remedies – not only to remedy their violations, but also implement changes to guarantee an enabling environment that will guarantee these rights,” said Wade McMullen, Senior Vice President at RFK Human Rights.

Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights welcomes the African Commission’s decision finding that the government of Zimbabwe had violated the rights of the applicants by arresting and detaining them as they engaged in peaceful protests and demonstrations. We call on the government of Zimbabwe to immediately implement the decision of the African Commission and promote an enabling and functioning civic space especially ahead of the 2023 elections.

Read the African Commission’s decision here.