Zimbabwe’s Eviction of 700,000 Illegal, Catastrophic Injustice

NEW YORK, New York, July 22, 2005 (ENS) - Zimbabwe's eviction of hundreds of thousands of the urban poor and destruction of their homes and shops is a "disastrous venture" that " breached both national and international human rights law, and the humanitarian consequences are "enormous" in the words of a UN investigative report released this morning.

For the first time, the report revealed the true scope of Operation Murambatsvina, which displaced 700,000 people "precipitating a humanitarian crisis,” wrote UN-HABITAT Executive Director Anna Tibaijuka in her report to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

The strongly worded report calls on the government of Zimbabwe to stop the demolitions of homes and markets, pay reparations to those who have lost housing and livelihoods and punish those responsible.

Annan called the report “profoundly distressing,” saying the evictions had done “a catastrophic injustice to as many as 700,000 of Zimbabwe’s poorest citizens, through indiscriminate actions, carried out with disquieting indifference to human suffering.”

Annan said the government of Zimbabwe must "recognize the virtual state of emergency that now exists, allow unhindered access for humanitarian operations, and create conditions for sustainable relief and reconstruction."

After a two week fact-finding visit to the southern African country, Tibaijuka says Operation Murambatsvina, or Drive Out Trash in the local Shona language, was based on colonial era Rhodesian law and policy that had been “a tool of segregation and social exclusion.”

She called on the government of President Robert Mugabe, 81, who has led the country since 1980 when Britain granted independence to Rhodesia and it became Zimbabwe, to bring the national laws into line with the realities of the country’s poor and with international law.

“The government of Zimbabwe should set a good example and adhere to the rule of law before it can credibly ask its citizens to do the same," she wrote in her report.


UN-HABITAT Executive Director Anna Tibaijuka of Tanzanian on her fact-finding mission to Zimbabwe (Photo courtesy UN)
Tibaijuka, who visited Zimbabwe as Annan’s special envoy, criss-crossed the country, holding town hall meetings and talking to local and national officials, with the permission of the government of Zimbabwe.

The operation, Tibaijuka wrote in her report, “while purporting to target illegal dwellings and structures and to clamp down on alleged illicit activities” was carried out in an indiscriminate and unjustified manner.

“It will take several years before the people and society as a whole can recover,” she wrote.

Tibaijuka's report does not assign blame to any individual, but Annan called on the Mugabe government to stop the operation and to make sure that “those who orchestrated this ill-advised policy are held fully accountable for their actions.”

The operation is still ongoing. On Wednesday, police raided church halls in Zimbabwe's second largest city Bulawayo, rounding up people sheltering there since their homes were destroyed and detaining at least four clergymen for questioning, church leaders said.

The 98-page report was handed to Zimbabwe’s Permanent Representative to the UN Cde Boniface Chidyausiku on Wednesday. Foreign Affairs spokesperson Pavelyn Musaka Thursday confirmed receipt of the report and said the government is analyzing it.

Chidyausiku said in Zimbabwe's state-run "Herald" newspaper, that President Mugabe "will make a comment at the appropriate time."

"What I know is we will have to respond at the earliest convenient time," he said.


President of Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe addresses the UN General Assembly in 2003. (Photo courtesy UN)
Mugabe has defended the evictions as an urban cleanup drive, and has promised to help the displaced people rebuild. Zimbabwe's political opposition, Movement for Democratic Change, says the operation is targeted at its supporters among the urban poor, and was intended to drive them into rural areas where they could be controlled more easily by the government.

On Thursday, some of the homeless were allowed to return to the demolished township of Hatcliffe, on the northern outskirts of the capital, Harare, state media reported.

In May, an estimated 20,000 people had their homes destroyed in Hatcliffe. Many of them were given just 30 minutes to pack their belongings and forced at gunpoint to tear down their own houses.

Late Wednesday, Deputy Housing Minister Morris Sakabuya told Parliament some 3,100 plots have been demarcated in Hatcliffe and are being allocated to "vetted" families, the national broadcaster and the "Herald" reported.

"Only those with lease agreements were allowed back, while those with receipts showing they had paid for their stands were also given lease agreements," Sakabuya was quoted as saying.

At UN Headquarters, Tibaijuka told a news conference that many African countries face similar problems and could experience a similar eviction operation “sooner than later,” since Africa is the most rapidly urbanizing continent and its urbanization is unplanned and unsupervised.

She called for the implementation of her agency’s Habitat Agenda, which calls on the international community to address the environmental sustainability of urban centers, by improving water and sanitation and upgrading slums.

Meanwhile, the government of Zimbabwe must allow the international and humanitarian community unhindered access to assist those that have been affected, she says. Priority needs include shelter and non-food items, food and health support services.

Tibaijuka said that the presence of her entourage kindled hope in those who had been evicted and her visit could be counter-productive, if the homeless people looking to the United Nations were not aided.

Tibaijuka explained that her mandate was not to apportion blame or calculate how much the aid would cost, but to recommend ways in which the international community could offer assistance to the Zimbabwean people.

Though the government is collectively responsible for the disastrous results, Tibaijuka says, evidence suggests that “there was no collective decision-making” about the conception and implementation, enforced by the police and military, and the “few architects of the operation” should be held to account.

Zimbabwe has pledged the equivalent of US$325 million to provide 1.2 million houses or building plots by 2008, but the report said economists are doubtful that the government can afford to carry out this pledge at a time when Zimbabwe is experiencing triple-digit inflation and a severe food crisis.

The corrective program, Operation Garikai, or Rebuilding and Reconstruction, is beyond the best efforts of the government of Zimbabwe, Tibaijuka says, and she appealed to the international community to mobilize immediate aid and avert further suffering.

Chidyausiku, Zimbabwe's Permanent Representative to the UN, called for the international community to partner with Zimbabwe to improve the plight of the people. "They can raise funding so that government can provide cheaper housing to needy people," he said.

Secretary-General Annan spoke today of the "duty to help those in need."

"In keeping with the recommendations of my envoy, the United Nations will urgently seek agreement with the Government of Zimbabwe to mobilize immediate humanitarian assistance on the scale that is required to avert further suffering, said Annan. "I urge the international community to respond generously to this call."

Seeking funds to repay an overdue debt to the International Monetary Fund, the government of Zimbabwe has approached numerous countries for a loan, including the governments of India and South Africa, with some success.

South Africa has signed a provisional memorandum of understanding with Zimbabwe for a R6.5 billion credit facility, the South African publication "Business Day" reported today.

Quoting unnamed Zimbabwean sources, the report said officials from the South African Reserve Bank and their Zimbabwean counterparts agreed on a draft deal last week.