Rule of Law

For Lawyers in Zimbabwe, a Day at the Office Can Carry Risks to Life and Limb #ABAChicago

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Lawyers in the African nation of Zimbabwe don’t worry much about such things as recessions, competing for business or the future of the billable hour. Their focus is more likely on staying out of jail while keeping their clients alive.

Zimbabwe has experienced “a complete breakdown of the rule of law” during the past decade of strife and civil war, said Irene Petras, executive director of Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, during a luncheon sponsored by the ABA Rule of Law Initiative on Saturday. The initiative supports efforts to rebuild justice systems in various countries around the world.

Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights is the 2009 recipient of the ABA Rule of Law Award. It is the first group from Africa to receive the award.

In accepting the award on behalf of her organization, Petras said its 14 full-time lawyers and 170 members face risks each day as they represent human rights activists in Zimbabwe, encourage fair and free elections, improve the administration of justice and nurture a culture of human rights.

Those threats include character assassination in the state-controlled media, abductions by youth gangs, arrests and beatings by police, torture during detention in military camps and prosecution in the courts, Petras said.

In a way, members of ZLHR can interpret such treatment as grudging recognition of its efforts. “Our job is not to make friends or ingratiate ourselves, but to assert the rule of law and the obligations of the Zimbabwe government to its people and the international community,” Petras said.

Petras did say there are signs of change in the country. Since the 2008 elections there, a new coalition government has taken steps to improve the economy and implement institutional reforms, and it has voiced a commitment to protect human rights. The question now, she said, is whether those promises will be kept.

“We could have sat back and concluded that our efforts have been rewarded,” she said, “but as lawyers, we know the devil is in the details. The road ahead remains long and difficult. While reform is ongoing, we are mindful of the need for the voices we have represented to be remembered and heard.”

The award to Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights reflects the growing emphasis that the ABA’s Rule of Law Initiative is giving to Africa, said Dianna Kempe, who chairs the initiative’s Africa council. She noted that the initiative is currently providing assistance in four countries on that continent: Burundi, Congo, Ethiopia and Liberia. The initiative also is participating in a program in Nigeria that is seeking to reduce human trafficking activities.

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