Commission of Inquiry: Zimbabwe Commission of Inquiry into the Matabeleland Disturbances
Duration:  1983 – 1984
Charter: No charter available
Commissioners: 4
Report: No official report; unofficial NGO report

 

Commission of Inquiry: Zimbabwe Commission of Inquiry into the Matabeleland Disturbances (also known as the Chihambakwe Commission of Inquiry)

Dates of Operation: September 1983 -  fall 1984 (approximately 12 months)

Background: In 1981 the Zimbabwe People's Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA) opposed Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA) and violence broke out in areas surrounding guerrilla outposts throughout the country. Politically motivated violence in Entumbane during 1981 was followed by killings in Matabeleland, a Western region of Zimbabwe inhabited by the Ndebele people who opposed President Mugabe’s rule. The government responded with a series of massive military campaigns in which thousands of civilians were killed, abused, or lost their property.

The Chihambakwe Commission of Inquiry was established by President Mugabe in 1983 to investigate the alleged massacres and to assuage widespread international and domestic criticism of the killings in Matabeleland.

Charter: Created by an order of President Robert Mugabe

Mandate: The Chihambakwe Commission of Inquiry was to investigate the killing of 1,500 political dissidents and other civilians in the Matabeleland region in 1983 and to gather testimony from villagers about what occurred.

Commissioners and Structure: The Commission was composed of four male members and was chaired by Zimbabwean Judge Simplisius Chihambakwe.

Report: No official report was issued because the government argued that the publication of the report could spark violence over past wrongs. To counter the government's silence, two Zimbabwean human rights organizations, the Legal Resources Foundation and the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace produced a report entitled "Breaking the Silence, Building True Peace" in 1997. The report was produced independently from the Chihambakwa Commission of Inquiry and was an attempt of civil-society to interrupt the state-sanctioned silence around the events in the early 1980s. The unofficial report called upon a variety of sources, such as statements from victims; records from missionaries, journalists, and lawyers; interviews; documents from Amnesty International and the Lawyer’s Committee for Human Rights or evidence from graves and mine shafts. A summary of this non-official report was translated into local languages. Its English version is available as a downloadable Word document (1.5MB).

Findings:

Official Conclusions

  • The findings of the commission’s official report are unknown because the government refused to release the results.

Unofficial Report Conclusions

  • The unofficial Summary Report issued by two Zimbabwean human rights organizations found that the dissidents accused of sparking the violence were loyal to ZIPRA ideals, but ultimately never numbered more than 400 and were incapable of such a widespread and organized campaign of violence.
  • More than 20,000 civilians were killed by security forces during the operation, and evidence of mass graves was discovered in addition to the location of mine shafts where bodies had been deposited.

Unofficial Recommendations  

  • The unofficial report recommended a national reconciliation process, a proper burial for the victims and compensation packages for those affected, with accelerated development for the affected regions of the southwest.

Subsequent Developments:

Reforms

The army brigade associated with the killings in Matabeleland was assigned to a different area of Matabeleland one year later. The government has never endorsed the report’s findings or recommendations nor have past violations been fully investigated. In 1988, Mugabe extended a general amnesty to members of the security forces and members of the ruling party imprisoned for human rights abuses related to the killings in Matabeleland.

Sources:

  • Africa Watch Committee. Zimbabwe, a Break with the Past?: Human Rights and Political Unity: An Africa Watch Report. New York, N.Y.: Africa Watch Committee, 1989.
  • Bickford, Louis. "Unofficial Truth Projects." Human Rights Quarterly 29, (2007): 994-1035.
  • Carver, Richard and Article 19 (Organization). "Who Wants to Forget?": Truth and Access to Information about Past Human Rights Violations. London: Article 19, 2000. Available at http://www.article19.org/pdfs/publications/freedom-of-information-truth-commissions.pdf (accessed June 26, 2008), p. 19-28.
  • Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Zimbabwe. and Legal Resources Foundation (Zimbabwe). Breaking the Silence, Building True Peace: A Report on the Disturbances in Matabeleland and the Midlands, 1980 to 1988. Harare: Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Zimbabwe: Legal Resources Foundation, 1997. Available at www.zimbabwesituation.com/Breaking.doc or http://www.hrforumzim.com/members_reports/matrep/matrepsumm.htm (accessed June 26, 2008).
  • Center for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation. "Justice in Perspective - Truth and Justice Commission, Africa - Zimbabwe." Center for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation. Available at http://www.justiceinperspective.org.za/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=41&Itemid=19 (accessed June 26, 2008).
  • Hayner, Priscilla B. "Fifteen Truth Commissions-1974 to 1994: A Comparative Study." Human Rights Quarterly 16, no. 4 (1994): 597-655.
  • Hayner, Priscilla B. Unspeakable Truths: Facing the Challenge of Truth Commissions. New York: Routledge, 2002.
  • Peterson, Trudy Huskamp. Final Acts: A Guide to Preserving the Records of Truth Commissions. Washington, D.C.; Baltimore: Woodrow Wilson Center Press; Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005. Available at http://www.wilsoncenter.org/book/final-acts-guide-to-preserving-the-records-truth-commissions (accessed October 26, 2008).
  • Sané, Pierre and Amnesty International. 23 May 1997. Open Letter from Amnesty International to His Excellency the President Robert Mugabe concerning the need for public discussion and action on the disturbances in Matabeleland and the Midlands in the 1980s. AFR 46/02/97. Available at www.amnesty.org/en/library/info/AFR46/003/1997/en (accessed February 10, 2011).

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