Two committees of Parliament will next week conduct public hearings to solicit the views of citizens on the National Peace and Reconciliation Bill, currently before the National Assembly. The two are the Portfolio Committee on Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs and the Senate Thematic Committee on Human Rights.

The hearings will be held in the following centres between the period 11 and 20 April 2016: Kwekwe Theatre, Gweru Theatre, Chinotimba Hall in Victoria Falls, ZPC Social Club in Hwange, Plumtree Town Council Hall, Lupane Local Board Council Hall, Bulawayo Holiday Inn, Gutu Council Boardroom, Masvingo Civic Centre Hall, Mutare Civic Centre Hall, Mbuya Nehanda Hall in Marondera, Tendai Hall in Bindura, Chaedza Hall in Chinhoyi and Parliament Senate Chamber in Harare. 

Granted, some other important centres have been left out in the itinerary. However, this is the best that Parliament could do given the available resources. Those unable to attend the hearings can still make written submissions.  

I urge the public not to miss this opportunity to make their voices heard on this important piece of legislation that will govern the work of the National Peace and Reconciliation Commission. The Commission was established by the Constitution to develop and implement programmes to promote national healing, unity and cohesion and the peaceful resolution of conflicts, among other functions. 

This piece of legislation is of utmost importance in a country such as Zimbabwe whose history is blighted by politically motivated violent conflict. It is critical that as we heard toward the 2018 general election, the country has in place a strong National Peace and Reconciliation Commission capable of dealing decisively with violent conflict and injustice issues. A good enabling legislation is a necessary condition (though not sufficient) for the effective functioning of the Commission. 

The public hearings are being held against the background of widespread condemnation of the Bill by civil society organisations and the Parliamentary Legal Committee (PLC). The committee has issued an adverse report on the draft legislation. An adverse report means there are certain provisions in the Bill that are in violation of the Constitution. 

The PLC, established by the Constitution to examine the constitutionality of every Bill and Statutory Instrument, is particularly worried by the provisions that take away the independence of the National Peace and Reconciliation Commission. There are several provisions in the Bill that empowers the Minister to interfere with the work of the Commission. This is in flagrant violation of section 235 of the Constitution which categorically states that independent commissions are “independent and are not subject to the direction and control of anyone” and that they are accountable to Parliament for the efficient performance of their functions. 

The PLC misgivings have been echoed by civil society organisations such as the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, Heal Zimbabwe Trust and the National Transitional Justice Working Group (NTJWG), a grouping of civil society organisations in Zimbabwe working on justice and reconciliation issues.

The CSOs have noted that while the Constitution creates a Commission that has power to hire its own secretariat, the Bill gives the Minister power to appoint civil servants to work as the secretariat of the National Peace and Reconciliation Commission. This blatantly violates section 234 of the Constitution which empowers independent commissions to “employ staff and, subject to the law, regulate their conditions of service”.

The NTJWG has cited the United Nations Rule of Law Tools for Post-Conflict States, which says the legitimacy and public confidence that are essential for a successful truth commission process, depends on the commission’s ability to carry out its work without political interference. The tool further states that once established, the commission should operate free of direct influence or control by the Government, including in its research and investigations, budgetary decision-making, and in its report and recommendations.

The PLC in its adverse report has made reference to the Paris Principles under which countries agreed that national human rights institutions must conform to certain principles and standards. One of these principles is that the independence of the institution must be guaranteed from Government interference.

In addition to lack of independence and lack of clarity on the conflicts that the Commission will deal with, the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace cites sections 322 and 325 of the Constitution that requires Parliament and the Government to ensure that independent commissions are adequately funded to perform their functions effectively. However, section 14 of the proposed Bill states that the Commission can accept funding from outside actors and institutions only “with approval of the Minister” and funds can only be invested “with the approval of the Minister and the Minister responsible for Finance”.

What is clear from the PLC report and comments by various civil society organisations is that the proposed legislative framework for the Commission is not good law. It is a far cry from the regional, continental and global standards. 

We hope these public hearings will result in a more constructive engagement between the committees of Parliament and the responsible ministers in order to effect amendments that address these contentious issues. We cannot afford a false start to the question of peace and reconciliation as it is one of the key determinants for the much sought after sustainable economic development. 

Members of Parliament cannot pass a piece of legislation that is in complete violation of the Constitution when they have been given the mandate to protect the supreme law. Doing so makes Parliament a hopeless institution and an unnecessary burden on the fiscus. 

John Makamure is the Executive Director of the Southern African Parliamentary Support Trust. Feedback: john.makamure@gmail.com