HRDs being interviewed by journalists


Women Who Defend Human Rights – Irene Petras

14 April 2015

The human rights record of Zimbabwe is a tainted one. Despite challenges, Zimbabwe has a dedicated human rights community, Irene Petras tells us. Irene is the Executive Director of Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR). She tells us about the context in which human rights defenders must work in Zimbabwe.

Irene joined ZLHR in 2002 and has been its Executive Director since 2008. The organization provides legal support services to the public through its in-house lawyers and its 200 members around the country. The organization also engages in training and capacity building. The organization meets with its members at least once a year to review their programs and seeks to foster a culture of human rights in Zimbabwe and the wider African region.

Protection International: What was your motivation to engage in the defence of human rights?

Irene Petras: When I first started working, I was employed in private practice in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe. In my daily interactions with the justice delivery system, I found that there were a lot of barriers for human rights defenders to access this system, in terms of high legal fees and a lack of lawyers who would understand the work of the defenders. That motivated me to start working for Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights and focus on this type of work.

It can be difficult at times to keep motivated. Particularly around election periods, the work can be dangerous. The support and solidarity of other human rights lawyers keep me going. On the other hand, setbacks can also give me the motivation to continue and fight. At the moment, we have a new constitution (which came into effect in May 2013) with a lot of developments within the protection of accused persons and an expanded Bill of Rights. This has also renewed my energy as well as that of the organisation to focus more on protecting human rights defenders and promoting social and economic rights, which were not constitutionally protected before.

PI: Can you say something about the context that Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights work in?

IP: Of course, our members are lawyers who often work in the public eye due to the nature of the cases that they handle and the human rights defenders they represent. For this reason, they are subjected to surveillance and have sometimes been assaulted or at times arrested and maliciously prosecuted whilst working on cases and interacting with people in various state institutions. There is a range of different ways that lawyers have been targeted because of their work trying to defend human rights. For example, some have been arrested, charged with contempt of court, or obstructing the course of justice, under a range of repressive laws. Of course, none of these prosecutions have been successful.

Criminalization has become a force of habit for some of the state actors. Instead of rationalizing their behavior and seeing other people as human beings who are exercising their constitutionally protected rights and freedoms, they immediately resort to violations and the use of laws and measures that criminalize the work of defenders. As they are not prosecuted or punished for such behavior, I believe that’s why they keep using these tactics.

In fact, however, such tactics don’t really work; our cases advocating for human rights defenders have been very successful, and in almost every single case we have handled since the project started in 2003, our clients have been acquitted.

Even though we’ve not had many human rights defenders convicted, they keep getting arrested and criminalized in other ways. The logical explanation for this continuation is that criminalization is a means of retaining power and that actors use these methods to try and stop civil society from calling for transparency and accountability for the actions state actors take as public officials.

PI: Are there also other actors involved in the criminalization of Zimbabwean human rights defenders?

IP: As a law-based organization, we interact often with the police. We continue to have a lot of problems with them. The main reason for this is that they don’t have a culture of human rights. We also interact with the prosecuting authorities. There again, you see a lack of understanding for people who want to express their opinions freely and use their rights as they are stated in the Constitution. I think that most challenges we have, are with these two groups. Although most of our cases have a successful outcome and defenders are often acquitted, these are cases that never should have begun in the first place.

PI: Do you see a difference in the way that male and female defenders are criminalized in Zimbabwe?

IP: On a general level, all human rights work can be criminalized, whether a man or a woman does the work. Having said that, there have been additional burdens for women defenders.

Zimbabwe has a very patriarchal society so there is a lot of pushback on women human rights defenders. The public opinion is that these women shouldn’t be getting out on the streets to demand their social and economic rights or becoming involved in legitimate political activity. Otherwise, what is the husband going to say when his wife is going out and causing this trouble by getting involved in these kinds of activities? It is clear that in Zimbabwe, criminalization of women defenders is present from the community level all the way up to the national level. Even within organized civil society and the legal profession, you have to deal with this problem and your opinion is often considered not as important as that of your male colleagues.

“The public opinion is that these women shouldn’t be getting out on the streets to demand their social and economic rights.”

PI: How are Zimbabwean WHRDs and organizations responding to criminalization?

IP: There have been different strategies. A lot has been linked to improving rights literacy and the importance of women participating in society, be it at the local or national level. It is also important to have the ability to access a safety and security system that will allow women to continue their work when an emergency has passed. In case of such an emergency, you need to be prepared with a good legal, medical, and psychosocial response, as well as a welfare system. So when you’re in custody for some time, someone can take care of the children while you’re away.

PI: In other words, educate yourself and be prepared.

IP: Yes. At a very personal level, if you go out to a protest, you might get arrested. But at least then you know what your rights are, you know that you have a lawyer who is available and will get you out of custody, someone who will provide medical care if you’re beaten and bring you food if you’re in custody and look after those that you’re normally looking after.

PI: Is it possible to prevent being criminalized in a context like that of Zimbabwe?

IP: We try to make the cost of criminalization so high, that the perpetrators (whether at state or non-state level) reform or choose not to use these strategies. You’re increasing the cost if there’s legal defense for defenders and you’re able to be successful in these cases. You do this as well by showing a pattern of selective use of repressive legislation and publicizing those trends and the identities of people who perpetrate such acts. Naming and shaming make clear that the defender is not actually a criminal, but someone whose fundamental rights are being suppressed in a very systematic manner.

We also try to use the law to slowly change administrative practices and policies. It definitely is an ongoing struggle to make the would-be perpetrators see that there is nothing wrong with women going on the streets to demand clean water and electricity for their household, and education for their children. You have to try to win the hearts and minds of the people who see you as a threat and try to reform the way they act and think by engaging with them.

“You have to try to win the hearts and minds of the people that see you as a threat and try to reform the way they act and think by engaging with them.”

PI: What can other key stakeholders do to combat criminalization?

IP: I believe we need to educate people and inform them about what human rights are, who human rights defenders are, and why the work they do is important to society as a whole. I think state actors know too little about this and about the obligation that they have as state actors. I believe human rights should always be in the curriculum at primary and secondary schools. We may not be able to change the habits of adults, who are set in their ways, but there is an opportunity to change the mindset of how young people view human rights and they can become a real force for good.

But we shouldn’t forget about educating others. It is important for even the elderly, who are very much respected in our society, to know their rights and to play that role as opinion-makers in their own community. More than 60 % of our population live in rural areas, so we need to reach them and inform them of their rights, who they can contact if their rights have been violated, and what remedies they can obtain where their rights have been violated.

“We may not be able to change the habits of adults, who are set in their ways, but there is an opportunity to change the mind-set of how young people view human rights and they can become a real force for good.”

At a national level, there’s a need for legislative and institutional reform and further development of the law so that we include the international obligations that Zimbabwe has when it comes to the protection of human rights defenders.

At regional and international levels, we need to strengthen our human rights networks in order to target those practices that criminalize HRDs from a stronger and more collaborative perspective. If we have a regional and continental response, we can better influence the African Union and the Southern Africa Development Community to put in place measures that will assist defenders. We can also amplify the challenges that defenders are facing in a particular country at a wider scale and mobilize people to act.

PI: Do you see a willingness from actors outside civil society to change this culture?

IP: I think we can reach out to the bureaucrats within the state institutions, the people who just want to do their job well and be respected. Even when you look at parliamentarians: They need to take up the issues that are relevant to their constituency. It is a task of civil society to educate members of parliament and bring them on board in legislative efforts which will strengthen human rights promotion and protection.

Once you build a critical mass, it becomes much more difficult for perpetrators within the state institutions to continue using those tactics against human rights defenders. That is constantly what we should aim for: build alliances and strengthen relations with people in all sorts of spaces, whether they are in state institutions or local government.

PI: Do you want to share your hopes and dreams for the future?

IP: I wouldn’t know what I’d do if I wasn’t hopeful. There’s a joke that Zimbabweans are hopelessly hopeful. There is a very dedicated, vibrant human rights community in Zimbabwe with courageous people defending human rights. I hope that we continue to grow this network. You don’t want people to become so despondent that they give up. I think it’s important for us to continue and look for new ways of doing our work and how we can engage with people that we haven’t engaged with before.

Perhaps the new constitution could be a rallying point. Still, I’m worried about the fact that there is already talk of amending the Constitution. Not only would this be a challenge to constitutionalism and the rule of law in the country, but that document has also given hope to many people. The moment you tamper with that, you tamper with the hopes of the country. We should try to bring this document alive and use it in interesting ways. If I feel that can contribute to that, this will give me the energy to continue.