Global Freedom of Expression

Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum v. Zimbabwe

Closed Mixed Outcome

Key Details

  • Mode of Expression
    Public Assembly, Public Speech
  • Date of Decision
    May 15, 2006
  • Outcome
    Violation of a Rule of International Law, ACHPR Violation
  • Case Number
  • Region & Country
    Zimbabwe, Africa
  • Judicial Body
    African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR)
  • Type of Law
    Criminal Law, Constitutional Law, International/Regional Human Rights Law
  • Themes
    Freedom of Association and Assembly / Protests, National Security, Political Expression
  • Tags
    Elections, Obligation to Prevent, Obligation to protect, Positive Obligations

Content Attribution Policy

Global Freedom of Expression is an academic initiative and therefore, we encourage you to share and republish excerpts of our content so long as they are not used for commercial purposes and you respect the following policy:

  • Attribute Columbia Global Freedom of Expression as the source.
  • Link to the original URL of the specific case analysis, publication, update, blog or landing page of the down loadable content you are referencing.

Attribution, copyright, and license information for media used by Global Freedom of Expression is available on our Credits page.

Case Analysis

Case Summary and Outcome

The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (“ACmHPR” or the “Commission”) held Zimbabwe responsible for the violation of Articles 1 and 7 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (“the Charter”). The present case concerned the human rights violations occurring in Zimbabwe from the Constitutional Referendum of 2000 until after the Parliamentary elections in June 2002. The violations were against opponents of the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (“ZANU (PF)”), including human rights activists, farmers, doctors, and teachers who were harassed, subjected to torture, and murdered by ZANU (PF) supporters. Any civilian whose political choices were not aligned with those of the ZANU (PF) party were targeted during these attacks, and further prevented from demanding redress due to the Clemency Order No. 1 of 2000, which consisted of an amnesty act that pardoned perpetrators charged with politically motivated crimes. Nonetheless, the Applicant’s submissions regarding the right to freedom of expression enshrined in Article 9 of the Charter were dismissed by the Commission, on the ground that non-state actors perpetrated the human rights violations alleged by the victims. Hence, even though the Commission repudiated the human rights violations committed by ZANU (PF) followers, the State party could not be charged with their offenses as their actions were not directly linked to the government.


The author of the communication was the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum, an alliance of 12 NGOs based in Zimbabwe. At the time of the events, a Constitutional Referendum was organized to revise the constitutional amendments proposed by the new government of Zimbabwe. The majority of Zimbabweans rejected the constitutional amendments, as shown by the Constitutional Referendum results. Nonetheless, the Constitutional Referendum incited violence and chaos within Zimbabwe, particularly against supporters of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and any other opponent of the ZANU (PF) party.

During the parliamentary elections held between February and June of 2000, the ZANU (PF) party committed systematic acts of violence against its opponents to obtain political advantages.  ZANU (PF)’s persecution and harassment of its opponents consisted of “dragging farm workers and villagers believed to be supporters of the opposition from their homes at night, forcing them to attend reeducation sessions and to sing ZANU (PF) songs. The Complainant alleges that men, women, and children were tortured, and there were cases of rape. Homes and businesses in both urban and rural areas were burnt and looted, and opposition members were kidnapped, tortured, and killed.”[para. 5] Human rights activists, doctors, nurses, and other civilians whose political choices were not aligned with those of the ZANU (PF) party or who were perceived as members of the MDC were also targeted during these attacks.

Likewise, supporters of the MDC were “…forced to attend all night rallies where they were given information on why they should support ZANU (PF) and not the opposition MDC. Furthermore, the victims were forced to surrender their parties’ campaign materials and were prevented from communicating to others their parties’ policies.” [para. 102] As per the Applicant’s submissions, ZANU (PF) followers received aid from the Central Intelligence Organization (CIO), the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP), and the Zimbabwe National Army (ZNA) to perform these attacks.

Between March and November of 2001, around 82 deaths were reported as a result of the systematic human rights violations committed by the ZANU (PF) party and its supporters, among which war veterans were known to be the primary perpetrators.  The victims and their families lodged many complaints to the High Court concerning the acts of violence orchestrated by the ZANU (PF) party and its followers; however, many witnesses and victims were prevented from delivering their testimonies due to death threats and intimidation.

The Respondent State endorsed the facts as submitted by the Applicant, mainly that the Zimbabwean judiciary did not possess the means to address the many complaints brought by the victims and their families in a time when large scale human rights violations were being perpetrated by members and supporters of the ZANU (PF) party.

Furthermore, police investigations into the ZANU (PF) party’s actions were frustrated by the Clemency Order No. 1 of 2000, an amnesty law that pardoned perpetrators charged with politically motivated crimes committed between January and July of 2000. Likewise, the Clemency Order No. 1 allowed the revision of imprisonment times of criminals already convicted of political offenses. Even though the amnesty excluded, inter alia, the crimes of murder, rape, robbery, and possession of firearms, among other offenses, not many criminals were ever accused and prosecuted for these offenses.

Consequently, in light of the Clemency Order No. 1, the victims could not exhaust domestic legal remedies before submitting a petition to the Commission. On 3 January 2002, the Applicant complained to the Commission, arguing the Respondent State had violated Articles 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 9, 10, 11, and 13 of the Charter. In November 2013, the Commission declared the petition admissible given the many difficulties faced by the victims in demanding redress for the ZANU (PF) party’s actions.

Decision Overview

As regards the right to freedom of expression, the Applicant complained that “… the victims in the present communication were abused because they held and sought to impart political views and opinions that were unfavorable to those of the Respondent State”, resulting in a violation of Articles 9, 10, and 11 of The Charter. [para. 102] In this respect, the Applicant cited the case of International PEN and others on behalf of Ken Saro-Wiwa v Nigeria in which the Commission ruled that the right to freedom of expression and the right to association and assembly are closely intertwined; thus, a violation of the right to freedom of expression is often followed by an infringement of Articles 10 and 11 of the Charter.

On the other hand, the Respondent State maintained that even though ZANU (PF) is the ruling party in Zimbabwe, the State cannot be held responsible for the actions and offenses committed by its members and supporters. In other words, the crimes perpetrated by ZANU (PF) supporters with the aid of war veterans cannot be attributable to Zimbabwe. Consequently, the Respondent State requested the dismissal of the Applicant’s allegations.

In the instant case, the central issue for consideration was whether the acts of the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front and the Zimbabwe Liberation War Veterans Association could give rise to the international responsibility of Zimbabwe in light of the parties’ submissions. According to the Commission, the concept of “non-state actors” comprises organizations and individuals who act beyond their governmental mandate or in their capacity as private persons. Private persons can bear international responsibility for the wrongful acts they have committed, in which case the State party can only be held responsible for not discharging its positive obligations pursuant to the Charter.

It emerges from the above arguments that States parties to the Charter cannot bear international responsibility for the acts committed by private or natural individuals within their jurisdictions. As per Article 1 of The Charter, States parties are required to deploy all available and necessary resources to prevent and punish human rights violations. The so-called positive obligations require States parties to undertake appropriate measures towards the adequate protection and preservation of the rights ratified. Hence, if a State party is said to have fulfilled its positive obligations, such as the duty to investigate human rights violations and prevent any foreseeable offense, a complaint stating otherwise could be dismissed.

In view of the foregoing, the Commission concluded that “…the ZANU (PF) is a political party (the ruling party) in Zimbabwe and just like any other party in the country, distinct from the government. It has an independent identity from the government with its own structures and administrative machinery, even though some of the members of the Zimbabwe Government – cabinet ministers, also hold top ranking positions in the party.” [para. 138] In addition, the Commission noted that the Applicant did not provide sufficient evidence to hold its arguments on the alleged links between the ZANU (PF) party and the government.

Moreover, during the hearing at the 35th Ordinary Session of the Commission, the Applicant withdrew its argument on the ZANU (PF) party acting on agency, thus admitting that the ZANU (PF) party followers and the war veterans operated independently of the State. Also, the Applicant reformulated its complaint alleging that the Respondent State was responsible not for the human rights violations perpetrated by the ZANU (PF) supporters, but because it failed at protecting human rights holders within its jurisdiction from the crimes of private individuals, mainly because of the lack of effective judicial remedies and diligent investigation of the facts.

In this respect, the Commission held that States’ positive obligations entail “…the creation and maintenance of an atmosphere or framework of an effective interplay of laws and regulations so that individuals will be able to freely realize their rights and freedoms.” [para. 152] Thus, having found that non-state actors committed the human rights violations claimed by the Applicant, the Commission ruled that “…in the present communication, the violations alleged to have been committed were done by individuals or organizations not directly connected to the State Party. For this reason, the State cannot be said to have violated Articles 9, 10, 11 and 13 of the African Charter.” [para. 187]

The Commission, therefore, dismissed the Applicant’s claims concerning the alleged violation of Article 9 of the Charter owing to the fact that the human rights violations examined herein were perpetrated by non-state actors, in which case Zimbabwe had only to demonstrate it deployed all necessary and available means to guarantee right holders within its jurisdiction the fulfillment of their ratified rights. Nonetheless, the Commission declared the international responsibility of Zimbabwe for violating Articles 1 and 7 of The Charter relative to the obligations of Member States (positive obligations) and the right to a fair trial, respectively.

Decision Direction

Quick Info

Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.

Mixed Outcome

The decision expanded the right to freedom of expression in the sense that the Commission recognized and repudiated the acts of torture, harassment, and murder perpetrated against the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) supporters and other civilians whose political opinions were not aligned with those of Zimbabwe’s ruling party: ZANU (PF). In this sense, the Commission ruled that the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly and association are often intertwined and that due to their relationship, a violation of the right to freedom of assembly and association often implies an infringement of the right to freedom of expression. However, in the present case, the triggering events were orchestrated by individuals acting independently of the State. In concert with the international consensus on violations committed by non-state actors, the Commission held that Zimbabwe did not infringe Article 9 of the Charter. Nonetheless, the Commission went well beyond the wording of Article 1 of the Charter and implemented international standards on States’ positive obligations, resulting in the engagement of Zimbabwe’s international responsibility under Articles 1 and 7 of the Charter.

Global Perspective

Quick Info

Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.

Table of Authorities

Case Significance

Quick Info

Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.

The decision establishes a binding or persuasive precedent within its jurisdiction.

The decision was cited in:

Official Case Documents

Have comments?

Let us know if you notice errors or if the case analysis needs revision.

Send Feedback