ZIMBABWE: Academics dominate new human rights body

Zimbabwe has sworn in its first human rights commission, led by and comprised mainly of academics - at a time when academic freedoms are being violated and students have protested against a visit to the country by hard-line Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

President Robert Mugabe swore in the Dean of law at the University of Zimbabwe, internationally respected election administrator Professor Reginald Austin, as head of a new human rights commission that is dominated by lecturers.

Austin has served as chief electoral officer of the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia, as director of the electoral component of the UN Observer Mission in South Africa, and as chief electoral adviser for Afghanistan's 2004 presidential election, among other posts.

Other academics on the human rights body are: Ellen Sithole (47), a law lecturer and advocate of women's rights; Carol Themba Khombe, a professor in the National University of Science and Technology's department of animal science; and Joseph Kurebwa (44), a University of Zimbabwe political science lecturer. Other members are lawyers Jacob Mudenda and Elasto Mugwadi, and a former mayor Japhet Ncube.

The commission has been charged with improving the human rights situation in Zimbabwe. Systematic violations of rights saw Mugabe, the country's ruler since independence in 1980, and his inner circle being slapped with targeted sanctions by the United States, Australia and the European Union.

As Zimbabwe celebrated its 30th anniversary of independence from Britain last week - and 86-year-old Mugabe his 30th year in power - the Zimbabwe National students Union (Zinasu) said Mugabe's violations of academic freedoms had been worse than those of the colonialists.

"Mismanagement, corruption, dictatorship tendencies, promotion of anarchy and disrespect of the rule of law turned Zimbabwe into a sorrowful state," Zinasu said in a statement.

Education had become inaccessible to the majority of students, with 2009 reporting the highest drop-out rate since independence, of 31%. Tuition fees in state institutions ranged from US$200 to $800 but civil service personnel earned a paltry $150 a month, Zinasu complained:

"Independence was supposed to create conditions conducive for independent and critical intellectual growth at institutions of higher learning, which in turn would lead to developments in research and critical human resources," the statement said.

"Today institutions of learning have been turned into torture chambers. Since 2000 more than 400 students have been issued with indefinite suspensions and 50 with life expulsions for demonstrating against the unaffordability of education in Zimbabwe."

These figures were "astonishingly larger" than the numbers of students suspended or expelled during the colonial era, Zinasu continued. Also, students were being forced to apply for a "restrictive cadetship programme which contains clauses that are tantamount to slavery".

The students also protested against the Iranian President opening the Zimbabwe International Trade Fair, held in Bulawayo from 19-24 April. Zinasu called on progressive students to shun the fair, to show their disgust at the invitation to "one of the world's famous human rights violators" who they said had inspired violence and rigged elections in his favour.

They described Ahmadinejad as notorious and his invitation to open the trade fair as a celebration of tyranny and an insult to peace-loving people and nations.