Special ABA London Sessions Report

Political powers blunt good law, human rights lawyer says

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Beatrice Mtetwa

Beatrice Mtetwa. Photograph by Professional Images.

The inspirational, and aspirational, template of the Magna Carta for the constitutions and legal documents that succeeded it was a recurring theme at the ABA London Sessions. But words and phrases are only as good as the intentions of government institutions tasked with upholding and enforcing them.

That was hammered home during a plenary session featuring Zimbabwean human rights lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa.

During the one-hour session, Mtetwa (who was featured in the February ABA Journal article “The Most Dangerous Job in Law”) credited the Magna Carta for inspiring the various independence movements in Africa during the 1950s and ’60s. However, she said, in many instances African nations merely deposed one king for another, albeit one who wasn’t addressed as “your highness.”

“We got those constitutions and bills of rights, but we also got African leaders who disrespected those rights,” Mtetwa said. “What went wrong? Power. We have not moved away from power exercised by kings. We just call them presidents now.”

Mtetwa detailed her human rights work in Zimbabwe and the obstacles that have prevented the country from fully realizing the ideals enshrined in the Magna Carta.


Even when things looked promising in Zimbabwe—as in 2008, when longtime President Robert Mugabe formed a new government with the opposition party—Mtetwa argued that, once again, it was important to look past the flowery rhetoric.

“We drafted a new constitution in Zimbabwe, and it looked good on paper,” she said. “But as the English say, ‘The proof of the pudding is in the eating.’ “

Mtetwa expressed disappointment with the government’s response to the new constitution, saying judges don’t seem to understand it, while noting a process to determine whether existing laws fit with the new constitution hasn’t even begun.

Mtetwa ultimately said she wasn’t very optimistic that Zimbabweans would be able to exercise the rights granted to them under their new constitution. However, she suggested to the lawyers in attendance that they can do a better job staying informed of events in Zimbabwe.

“Most people probably don’t know that we just had by-elections on the 10th of [June],” she said, “and people got broken limbs simply for exercising their right to vote.”

Mtetwa also said she believed very strongly in using litigation—if not to get the right result, then to create a historical record. “I feel very strongly that it’s important to litigate cases so that no one in the future can say, ‘We didn’t know this was happening.’ “

See what people were saying about the events in our social media roundup, and follow along with our full coverage of the ABA London Sessions.

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