According to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) the responsibility to respect human rights requires that business enterprises: “Avoid causing or contributing to adverse human rights impacts through their own activities, and address such impacts when they occur.” Moreover, Principle 5 provides that “States should exercise adequate oversight in order to meet their international human rights obligations when they contract with, or legislate for, business enterprises to provide services that may impact upon the enjoyment of human rights.” This seems relevant in the case of the Government of Zimbabwe (Government) contracting a German private company, Giesecke and Devrient (G and D GmbH)‚ to print a surrogate currency “Bond Notes”. A Bond Note is a controversial quasi-currency introduced by the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ), pegged against the US dollar. The RBZ issued bond notes to contribute to liquidity and market transactions.

The Bond Notes were widely anticipated to trigger hyperinflation similar to the one in 2008, leading to massive shortages of basic goods and services and impacting negatively on the accessibility, availability, and affordability of food, rents, medicine, clean water, and livelihood. A violation of the right to food, housing, water, health among others would be the consequence. In addition, there were fears that the token currency would be used to fund torture, murders and a litany of other egregious human rights violations. In response, citizens and a variety of civil society actors rallied together to challenge the government decision to engage G and D GmbH through a multi-faceted approach characterized by massive stay aways, marches and demonstrations targeting State entities, businesses with State links and partitioning G and D GmbH, the EU and German government (see here, here and here). It is has been twelve months since the emergence of what is now known as the #ThisFlag, Tajamuka-Sisijikile (“we refuse” in Shona) movements. This short piece examines these campaigns against the backdrop of the implementation of the UNGPs in Zimbabwe.

The idea that the corporate sector can (and should) be guided by respect of human rights in its business activities and engagements has been quite an anathema in Zimbabwe. #ThisFlag, Tajamuka-Sisijikile was transformational in the sense that for the first time private sector was held to account for the provision of services which could lead to serious human rights violations. Previous efforts by civil society to combat and draw the world’s attention to human rights abuses by the corporate sector were unsuccessful, notably, due to lack of unity in what Raftopolous (see article) called a “severely weakened local civil base”. The #ThisFlag, Tajamuka-Sisijikile movements were indicative of a seismic shift in the organisation of CSOs that led to considerable gains in fostering the business and human rights agenda in Zimbabwe:

  • The movements changed the shape of civil society activism by facilitating the rise of popular movements. This helped to generate massive interest and to bring together Zimbabweans from all walks of life in order to form a coalition to confront not only the Government but other non-state actors, among them mainly private corporations, as well. A key success factor of these movements was their inclusive attitude that recognized the diversity of approaches as instrumental in leveraging different sections of civil society in creative and mutually supportive ways.
  • They redefined the human rights discourse in Zimbabwe. Civil society has widened the net of activism in order to identify all relevant actors causing and contributing human rights violations, including the business sector. The campaign was carried out from a human rights perspective and in a language that resonated and was effective in mobilizing others to join the campaign.

The success of the #ThisFlag, Tajamuka-Sisijikile movements can also be attributed to other factors. First, to the use of social media, which is now widely available in Zimbabwe. WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter and Youtube became alternative information platforms to state controlled media. Although the government tried to foist a social media ban, it came too late. Online activism helped to convey information, gather people and spread the news, helping civic campaigners to capture the attention of the beleaguered citizenry of Zimbabwe both at home and abroad. The campaigns were replicated in the diaspora in cities across the US, South Africa, the UK, Germany, Australia and Canada targeting Zimbabwean permanent missions. Secondly, the social media campaign, which could have simply been dismissed as clicktivism, was used in sync with the (international) traditional media which helped to make verifiable information available also outside Zimbabwe. Thirdly, the local presence of an international diplomatic community, the European Union, the US, and international civil society represented by international NGOs such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, monitoring the situation and calling on the Government to respect the right to demonstrate also played a crucial role.

The campaigns left an indelible imprint and reconfigured the discourse on the intersectionality of human rights with the corporate sector. Consequently, one of the crucial lessons is that the campaigns have left the citizenry with a new standard of measure for human rights for both the government and businesses. This new trend to yoke human rights principles in the context of business operations is already illustrated by the landmark court cases brought by resilient villagers of the Chiyadzwa mining area against mining conglomerates for violating their rights. The people of Chiadzwa, who had since accepted fate of the powerful diamond companies, have begun filing suits for compensation before the courts. The withdrawal of G and D GmbH from contracting with the government has proven to be a success and has produced an alternative measure for making business bow to citizens’ pressure in the absence of a legally binding international instrument or binding judicial precedent.

Civil activism has undoubtedly shaped a new trajectory in Zimbabwe toward making sure the net is cast widely in order to catch all violators of human rights both state and none state actors. This may well serve as a deterrent to similar local and international businesses from offering goods and services that are manifestly benefiting the regime or have implications on the longevity of the dictatorship and aid and abet human rights violations otherwise. Zimbabwean activists have shown that they are taking the fight against human rights violations committed by powerful businesses to a greater level. This serves as a warning sign that those who are doing business with the Government must be prepared to abide by human rights standards.

By Prosper Maguchu

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