Foreign Policy Blogs

Zimbabwe & the Search for the Rule of Law

Photo by Robin Hammond

Photo by Robin Hammond

What does a country in the middle of collapse look like? This was the question filmmaker Lorie Conway attempted to answer in her new film on Zimbabwe, “Beatrice Mtetwa and the Rule of Law.” A recent showing by the United States Institute of Peace gave a venue for both the filmmaker and the film’s primary focus, human rights lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa, to discuss this question and its implications. By focusing on the rule of law, or at times the lack thereof, the film attempts to demonstrate not only the decline of the country, but also what is needed to get it back on track.

Once seen as the breadbasket of Africa, for many years after independence Zimbabwe enjoyed economic growth and strong socio-economic development in areas such as literacy, education, and healthcare. But underneath the rosy exterior, political intimidation and oppression remained. This reality was further masked once the main opposition party united with President Robert Mugabe’s party, turning Zimbabwe in a de facto single party state under ZANU PF. But with growing economic pressures and the emergence of a new opposition party with the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in the late 1990s, the veneer started to fall away. What has happened since then – violent farm invasions, massive internal displacement, years of runaway hyperinflation, rampant government corruption, violent political oppression, crackdowns on independent press and civil society – are signs of a country in collapse but also symptoms of the underlying problem which is what happens when a government chooses to completely disregard the rule of law in favor of maintaining their power at all costs.

The World Justice Project defines the rule of law as four principles: 1) All person and entities are accountable under the law, including government officials, 2) law are clear and widely available, applied evenly, and protect fundamental rights, 3) the process for enacting laws and their administration is fair and accessible, and 4) justice is delivered by an independent judiciary who have adequate resources and are representative of the communities they serve. As the film and panel discussion highlighted, Zimbabwe lacks all four of these principles which makes development and growth extremely difficult.

In the fight for the rule of law, Beatrice Mtetwa looms large. Formerly a state prosecutor, when she left the prosecutors office and started her own firm in 1989, she quickly gained a reputation for her willingness to take on cases that others wouldn’t touch due to political sensitivities or controversy. As a result, she has appeared in some of the most high profile human rights cases in recent Zimbabwe history. Representing opposition politicians, journalists, evicted farmers, democracy activists and civil society leaders, Mtetwa is at the forefront of trying to uphold the law and hold the government accountable to basic human rights standards.

Doing so is not always easy or successful. Starting in 2001, the judiciary underwent restructuring which saw Zimbabwe’s independent judges forced out in favor of presidential political appointments. The obvious result is a biased system where the outcome of any given case is more likely to be based on political considerations than the legal merits. Coupled with draconian laws like the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act which heavily constricts the media, and the Public Order and Security Act which gives the security sector wide ranging powers to protect the presidency and curtails freedom of association, the ability of an attorney to hold parties to basic legal principles is difficult and at some times, downright impossible.

But not always. Despite the deficiencies in the rule of law in Zimbabwe – the World Justice Project ranks the country second to last in the world in its’ Rule of Law Index – the persistence of figures like Mtetwa and their work demonstrates that for now there is still room where people can motivate change. Though slow, by constantly pushing back against corruption and authoritarianism, lawyers and civil society actors can diminish the progress of this backslide and hopefully move the line further towards a more democratic and inclusive government.

Zimbabwe is scheduled to hold elections later this year, the first since the violent elections of 2008. Both of the major parties have failed within the power sharing government and much is at stake in the election, not just in terms of who takes power but what direction the country will follow for the future. Opinions about who is best for the country vary but as with any democratic contest, the most important element is that the people are able to make that choice in a fair, free and transparent fashion. The rule of law is crucial to making that happen. So far, recent analysis is not optimistic that the reforms needed to guarantee this will occur prior to the election but there is still time. And regardless of the outcome of the election, it is obvious that major reforms in governance, judicial discretion and tackling security sector impunity are needed to put Zimbabwe back on track. Doing so will not only improve human rights but encourage economic growth, two things urgently needed to bring Zimbabwe back from the depths of collapse.



Kimberly J. Curtis

Kimberly Curtis has a Master's degree in International Affairs and a Juris Doctor from American University in Washington, DC. She is a co-founder of The Women's Empowerment Institute of Cameroon and has worked for human rights organizations in Rwanda and the United States. You can follow her on Twitter at @curtiskj

Areas of Focus: Transitional justice; Women's rights; Africa