Zimbabwe’s constitutional referendum may signal a new future for Zimbabwean governance and human rights, but arrests and raids of several human rights organizations have cast doubt on the legitimacy of the process.

The constitutional referendum was passed with 94.5% of the vote, and political elections are scheduled for the summer. The motivation for the reform traces back to the country’s 2008 elections and the power-sharing agreement between the political parties of President Robert Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai. Observers questioned the validity of the elections, which were colored by allegations of vote suppression and fraud. Tsvangirai’s party narrowly won a majority in parliament, and his assertion that Mugabe could not remain president without a majority in parliament led to an extensive power-sharing agreement under which Mugabe became president and Tsvangirai became Prime Minister. Events leading up to the referendum vote, however, indicated a suppression of the involvement of the Zimbabwean people, instead of the empowerment that the power-sharing agreement purports to reinforce.

Article VI of the power-sharing agreement established the constitutional referendum and acknowledged the “fundamental right and duty of the Zimbabwean people to make a constitution by themselves and for themselves.” In referencing the referendum before the UN General Assembly in 2009, Mugabe expressed his “unwavering commitment to chart a new vision for the country and to improve the lives of the people in peace and harmony.”

However, the government engaged in arrests of members of civil society throughout the reform process and such efforts increased in the months leading up to the vote. In August 2012, Zimbabwean riot police described by witnesses as “visibly drunk” raided the headquarters of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance of Zimbabwe (GALZ). Employees stated that they were assaulted as the officers seized documents based on charges of running an “unregistered organization,” an allegation also used to authorize the arrest of the director of the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum. Authorities have also apprehended several members of the Counseling Service Unit (CSU), a torture and political violence support organization, for possession of “offensive and subversive material.”

The weeks leading up to the vote have been particularly active for what activists call suppression of civil society. Police officers on February 11 twice raided the offices of the Zimbabwean Police Project, which has been a target of antagonism dating back to the arrest and alleged torture of its director in 2008. On the recent occasion, officers entered the offices both times brandishing warrants for “subversive material.” On February 13, when the date for the referendum was announced, eight members of Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) were arrested following what reports have described as police beatings and tear gas deployment against activists handing out roses and teddy bears during a Valentine’s Day demonstration outside the Zimbabwean Parliament.  

Civil society organizations’ activities related to voting in the referendum have also led to raids on several organizations and arrests on charges of voter registration fraud. ZimRights, a human rights organization, has seen its director and secretary, among other employees, arrested for “voter registration fraud.” Officials charged the employees with “publishing falsehoods, fraud and forgery after . . . conducting illegal voter registration.” Similarly, following an initial arrest of forty members, officials charged two leaders of the National Youth Development Trust with voter registration fraud for possessing voter registration receipts. This has also extended to the arrest of two officials from the Zimbabwe Electoral Support Network for holding an “unsanctioned public meeting.” 

Targeting civil society with violence and arrest based on political activity are violations not only of the professed purpose of the constitutional referendum, but also with the inclusion of state authorities in the reported situations, the actions implicate Zimbabwe’s obligations under international human rights law. The charges and the circumstances of the arrests are indicative of arbitrary arrest due to their broad nature and also suggest a pattern of suppression based on political activities without cause, in violation of Article 9 of both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the binding International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Zimbabwe is a State Party. The police actions, which the civil society organizations have said was aimed at suppression of information, targeted the dissolution of the organizations and seizure of documents and publications. This implicates ICCPR obligations under Articles 19 and 21, which protect the rights of freedom of association, expression through the dissemination of opinion and information, and assembly, and constitutes political discrimination contrary to Article 1 of the same.

In a process aimed at increasing peace, democratization, and broader political involvement, Zimbabwe’s laudable goal of a constitutional referendum has resulted in increased suppression of civil society. These allegations of human rights violations by Zimbabwean authorities put into question the legitimacy of the constitutional referendum and whether this alone could solve the institutional defects that lead to rights violations in Zimbabwe.