On the 16th August three UN Rapporteurs on human rights sent the Government their comments on the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Amendment Act 2023, the so-called “Patriot Act” which was promulgated on the 14th July.  The comments can be accessed on the Veritas website [link]and so can the Patriot Act itself [link].

The Rapporteurs looked at the new section 22A which the Act inserts in the Criminal Law Code and which creates the crime of “wilfully injuring the sovereignty and national interest of Zimbabwe”.  Their comments, though couched in respectful diplomatic language, are highly critical.  They find that the Act violates Zimbabwe’s obligations under international law in the following respects:

·The new section restricts freedoms of expression, assembly and association on the basis of “national interest”.  This is not permitted under international human rights law.

·The broad terms and definitions used in the section are open to arbitrary interpretation and may permit the arrest, detention and harassment of individuals for exercising their internationally protected rights.

·The section may criminalise political and religious dissent, critical discussion of human rights, independent journalism and media independence.  This will affect human rights defenders, NGOs, cultural, religious and minority organisations and civic space more broadly, and may target activities such as protests, gatherings, meetings with donors or international organisations and critical statements against the government.  The section may also limit the participation of civil society in intergovernmental meetings such as the Human Rights Council.

·The punishments prescribed under the section may be disproportionate due to the broad range of activities the section penalises.

·The death penalty which can be imposed for contraventions of the new section 22A(2) could result in arbitrary deprivation of life.

·The provision in section 22A(3) for stripping persons of their citizenship may be used as a tool to silence dissidents and could be arbitrarily imposed, contrary to international law.

·The provision for prohibiting persons from voting, also in section 22A(3), may be incompatible with international human rights law, which allows the right to vote to be subject only to limited restrictions.

The Rapporteurs respectfully reminded the government that all States have the primary responsibility and duty to protect, promote and realise all human rights and fundamental freedoms.  They respectfully urged the government to consider repealing section 22A in its entirety.

On behalf of the UN Human Rights Council the Rapporteurs asked the government to explain:

·how the amended Act is compatible with the government’s obligations under articles 6, 7, 9, 17, 19, 21, 22 and 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,

·how the government will ensure that the new section will not lead to undue restrictions on the freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and association guaranteed by articles 19, 21 and 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,

·what specific steps the government plans to take to ensure conformity with international human rights standards, if the new section 22A is not going to be repealed, and

·what measures have been taken or are being considered by the government to ensure that human rights defenders and civil society actors can carry out their legitimate activities without fear of harassment, intimidation or undue restriction.

Any response from the government, the Rapporteurs said, would be made public.  We await the government’s response with interest.

With the opening of the Tenth Parliament of Zimbabwe due very soon, we ask that the new Parliamentarians also consider ameliorating the Act.

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