The International Human Rights Framework on the Right of Peaceful Assembly
Zimbabwe is a state party to the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Article 21 governs the right of peaceful assembly, providing that:
The right of peaceful assembly shall be recognized. No restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those imposed in conformity with the law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order (ordre public), the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.
Zimbabwe is not a state party to the First Optional Protocol to the ICCPR, which allows individuals to petition the Human Rights Committee if they believe the state has violated their human rights as protected under the Covenant.
At regional level, Zimbabwe is a state party to the 1981 African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights. Article 11 provides as follows:
Every individual shall have the right to assemble freely with others. The exercise of this right shall be subject only to necessary restrictions provided for by law in particular those enacted in the interest of national security, the safety, health, ethics and rights and freedoms of others.
Zimbabwe is a signatory but not a state party to the 1998 Protocol on the African Court on Human and Peoples' Rights.
The Domestic Legal Framework on the Right of Peaceful Assembly
Under Section 58 of the 2013 Constitution of Zimbabwe, everyone has the right to freedom of assembly. Under Section 59, everyone has the right to demonstrate and to present petitions, but these rights must be exercised peacefully.
The primary legislation on assemblies in Zimbabwe was previously the Public Order and Security Act. In 2019, in its national report to the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights, the Government of Zimbabwe noted that to comply with recommendations made during its Universal Periodic Review under the Human Rights Council, it had repealed the Act.
In August 2019, the Maintenance of Peace and Order Bill (MOPO) was passed by the Zimbabwean Parliament. The Bill was sent to the President for assent and gazetting as an Act. The Bill requires seven days' notice for a demonstration and five days' notice for a public assembly.
The Legal Framework on Use of Force During Assemblies
The Use of Force
International Legal Rules
Under international law, the duty on the state and its law enforcement agencies is to facilitate the enjoyment of the right of peaceful assembly. According to the 1990 United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials:
In the dispersal of assemblies that are unlawful but non-violent, law enforcement officials shall avoid the use of force or, where that is not practicable, shall restrict such force to the minimum extent necessary.
All force used by police and other law enforcement agencies must be necessary for a legitimate law enforcement purpose and proportionate to that purpose.
Under Clause 13 of the 2019 Maintenance of Peace and Order Bill, the police may ensure the dispersal of a gathering "and may for that purpose order the use of force, excluding the use of weapons likely to cause serious bodily injury or death". It is further stated that in so doing:
The degree of force which may be so used shall not be greater than is necessary for dispersing the persons gathered and shall be reasonable and proportionate to the circumstances of the case and the object to be attained.
Section 42 of the 1898 Criminal Procedure and Evidence Act (as amended) gives police officers the power to use “such force as may be reasonably justifiable and proportionate in the circumstances” to overcome resistance during arrest or prevent escape.
The Use of Firearms
International Legal Rules
According to the 1990 United Nations Basic Principles, in the dispersal of violent assemblies, a law enforcement official may only use a firearm against a specific individual where this is necessary to confront an imminent threat of death or serious injury or a grave and proximate threat to life.
Under Clause 13 of the 2019 Bill:
If any person who participates in a gathering or any person who hinders, obstructs or interferes with persons who participate in a gathering
(a) kills or seriously injures, or attempts to kill or seriously injure, or shows a manifest intention of killing or seriously injuring, any person; or (b) destroys or does serious damage to, or attempts to destroy or to do serious damage to, or shows a manifest intention of destroying or doing serious damage to, any immovable property or movable property considered to be valuable; a police officer of or above the rank of assistant inspector may order the police officers under his or her command to take the necessary steps to prevent the action contemplated in paragraph (a) or (b).
More generally, lethal force may be used by police under the 1898 Criminal Procedure and Evidence Act (as amended) where the person is suspected of having committed a serious offence and the person attempting the arrest believes on reasonable grounds that:
(a) the force is immediately necessary for the purposes of protecting the person attempting the arrest, any person lawfully assisting the person attempting the arrest or any other person from imminent or future death or grievous bodily harm; or
(b) there is a substantial risk that the suspect will cause imminent or future death or grievous bodily harm if the arrest is delayed; or
(c) the offence for which the arrest is sought is in progress and is of a forcible and serious nature and involves the use of life-threatening violence or a strong likelihood that it will cause grievous bodily harm.
State Compliance with its Legal Obligations
Views and Concluding Observations of United Nations Treaty Bodies
Zimbabwe has not come before the Human Rights Committee in recent years. In 2016, the Committee on the Rights of the Child also expressed concern about reports that the Public Order and Security Act had been invoked by the authorities to deny children permission to hold marches in commemoration of International Children’s Day.
Zimbabwe submitted a national report to the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights in 2019 covering the past 12 years. It stated that it had adopted new legislation to address the right of assembly.
Views of Civil Society
According to Freedom House's 2019 report on Zimbabwe:
Freedom of assembly and association are guaranteed in the constitution, but poorly upheld in practice. Authorities have long used a section of POSA requiring police approval for demonstrations and permitting civil and criminal penalties for violations to inhibit free assembly. However, in October 2018, the Constitutional Court struck down this provision. Rights advocates praised the move, but noted authorities’ aggressive past use of POSA to prevent free assembly, and called on authorities to respect the court’s decision.
Postelection antigovernment protests that erupted in August 2018 were violently put down by security forces, who killed six people when they fired on demonstrators. Authorities filed trumped-up charged against opposition figures in the aftermath, and the MDC said authorities abducted some protest leaders as part of an intimidation campaign meant to stamp out the movement.
According to CIVICUS:
Anti-government protests have proliferated in Zimbabwe since June 2016, as the country heads towards elections in 2018. Between July 5 and July 15, 2016 at least 300 people were arrested and charged with violating provisions of the Criminal Law Codification and Reform Act after participating in peaceful protests over economic mismanagement by the government. Police have responded to the wave of protests by indiscriminately using water cannons, teargas, and batons against peaceful protestors.