Lately, national debate has centred on the press conference that was held in the Republic of South Africa by a group of politicians and some members of civil society, prominent among them, Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) president Dr Nevers Mumba, United Party for National Development (UPND) president, Mr Hakainde Hichilema, and United Liberal Party (ULP) president Mr Sakwiba Sikota.
Sadly, the debate has centred, not on the substance of the press briefing, but on whether it was justifiable for the concerned people to hold a press briefing in a foreign country and supposedly ‘denounce’ their own country. This approach has tended to relegate the main concerns being raised by the concerned grouping.
However, lest we are perceived to be trivializing this concern, we believe as a Human Rights Commission, and this is also common practice, that for any matter pertaining to human rights violations to be addressed and positively tackled by international and regional bodies including the United Nations and the Commonwealth, it must first be addressed by all possible legal and other recourses at national level, i.e. within the country.
On this score, questions may justifiably be raised as to whether all such possible local avenues were exhausted with regard to the alleged human rights violations as outlined in the dossier submitted to the Commonwealth by the concerned grouping. The answer, to our knowledge, to this assertion is No, as some of the matters raised are still pending adjudication before our courts of law in Zambia. One such matter is as pertains to the interpretation of the Public Order Act, which the Law Association of Zambia (LAZ) has taken to court.
However, having said that, from a human rights point of view, there is absolutely nothing wrong with people, irrespective of their nationalities or political affiliations, addressing press conferences in foreign countries to draw attention to what they may perceive as violations of human rights of nationals by their sitting governments. Examples of this abound in many parts of the world. The right to freedom of expression, as espoused in Articles 19 of both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which instruments Zambia has acceeded to, entails that one should enjoy the right to hold opinions and express them using a variety of possibilities including speech, writing, art and so on, in imparting and receiving.
In today’s technological world, one can use a variety of media including social media, which readily and easily carries the message to an international audience just at the press of a button. It follows, therefore, that for one to “expose Zambia’s dirty linen” to the international audience, does not necessarily have to go abroad to do it. Whatever is carried by our local media can be accessed by the international community very easily. To this effect, the fact that the concerned grouping addressed foreign press in a foreign country to complain about some alleged human rights violations in our country is essentially a NON ISSUE.
Targeted Politicians do not suffer when Sanctions are imposed on a country
As for calls made by the concerned grouping for sanctions against Zambia, the Human Rights Commission states that it is very uncomfortable with the call to suspend Zambia from the Commonwealth and impose sanctions on her. Experience has shown elsewhere, that the targeted politicians do not suffer when sanctions are imposed on a country. The brunt of the sanctions is fully borne instead by the innocent majority people in the affected country who have little influence on the political direction of the country once they have elected a government into office. As such, the Human Rights Commission totally disagrees with this call as it might lead to more rights being denied to the common people of Zambia.
As stated earlier, however, we must not lose sight of the substance of the press briefing or the contents of the 39 page dossier which has been submitted to the Commonwealth by the concerned grouping. This, in effect, is what should interest us all. The people of Zambia must carefully study this document as it is in the public domain, and also evaluate the substance of the press briefing so that they make their own judgment whether what is being alleged is true or not in fact.
In our view, the complaints about human rights violations may be justifiable in certain instances. Lately, Zambia has indeed experienced suppression of some of the fundamental rights and freedoms, and in the greater majority of instances, this has been directed at prominent politicians and selected political parties which, it may be speculated, are seen as the major threat to the ruling Patriotic Front (PF).
The PF Governments silence to address issues raised
We will not go into listing these violations because they are being debated almost on a daily basis and are now common knowledge. What concerns us now is that the Government has so far not been seen to take public steps to address these concerns that are being brought forward by its own people regardless of their political affiliation. What the Human RightsCommission expects is that the Government should lead the way by sitting down with the various political parties and dialogue on whatever concerns are raised in the spirit of our democratic dispensation. Lack of genuine dialogue between the Government and opposition political parties can easily lead to desperation and exasperation on the part of those that may feel not to be part of the country’s democratic process and thus seeking foreign intervention in frustration.
Consequently, as a Commission, in our capacity as a constitutionally established national human rights watchdog, we now earnestly and urgently call upon our Government, to initiate genuine dialogue with all political parties that have concerns regarding the running of the affairs of our country. After all, that is what is expected of a listening Government.
A call to a National Dialogue
Now that matters have gone so far as to allegedly involve the international community, this should not be an impediment to have local dialogue. We cannot over emphasise the desirability of having locally initiated solutions to our local challenges. At a cost of repetition, what is most appropriate at this point is a deliberate effort to commence dialogue among all concerned parties with honest intentions on both sides to arrive at a positive and mutually beneficial result. We should add here that concerns raised by the said grouping may not just be reserved to political players in the country. Other segments of the Zambian society, including the Council of Churches in Zambia (CCZ), the Evangelical Fellowship of Zambia (EFZ) and the Law Association of Zambia (LAZ), in addition to several NGOs and individuals, have all raised concerns on these human rights issues with the Government.
The Catholic Bishops recently issued a Pastoral Letter which also touched on violations of human rights in our country. All these various segments of our country cannot be speaking from without. These developments suggest that something may have seriously gone wrong in our country and this is what our Government must rise to and address. It is the firm view of the Human Rights Commission that our precious and enduring national unity and peace must transcend our political diversity.
As a Human Rights Commission, ours is therefore a non partisan call to all stakeholders to a national dialogue and this must be done now.
By Pixie Kasonde Yangailo
Chairperson, Human Rights Commission.