Efforts in Zimbabwe to write a new constitution

19 February, 2013

From VOA Learning English, welcome to AS IT IS. I’m your host Mario Ritter.

All over the world, people have a desire to have their voice heard in their communities.  Today we report on efforts in Zimbabwe to write a new constitution. And we hear the concerns of activists and human rights lawyers about the use of a dangerous chemical against civilians by officials in Burma.

A group of lawyers and activists is calling for action against Burmese officials who permitted the use of a skin-burning chemical against peaceful protesters. The demonstration took place last November at the Letpedaung copper mine in northwest Burma.  Since then, lawyers and activists have been investigating the incident. June Simms has the story.

Last week, the Burma Lawyers Network and the rights group Justice Trust announced the results of their joint investigation.  They said Burmese officials forced villagers to give up rights to their farmland by having them sign legal documents they had never read.

Hundreds of villagers protested plans to expand the cooper mine. The groups said police used shells containing white phosphorus to break up the demonstration. The use of white phosphorus can be legal under some battle field conditions. But the activists say it should not be used against civilians.

Roger Normand, director of Justice Trust, says the chemical severely injured more than 150 protesters.

“It’s used by militaries for smoke screen and for illumination. But it’s a chemical. And so, it essentially has a dual purpose which would be against military personnel, against soldiers. And, for that it’s illegal.”

Burmese officials have apologized for the raid, but denied the use of white phosphorus. The report says the use of such chemicals against peaceful demonstrators raises questions about who gave the orders.

In December, President Thein Sein appointed opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi as head of a committee to investigate the copper mine incident. She met with all sides. She surprised many people when she declared support for the rights of villagers. Yet she also said Burma needs to honor its responsibilities.

Roger Normand describes her appointment as a good sign because she is seen as being honest.

“On the other hand, the committee has to have the mandate and the power to be able to investigate.”

Her committee has yet to release its official report on the copper mine. It is not clear when the results will be made public. I’m June Simms.

Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe announced last week that Zimbabweans will vote on a proposed constitution on March 16th.   The proposed document has created a debate both inside and outside the nation.  Steve Ember has more.

The document’s creators say the proposed constitution includes several improvements. But they also recognize it is the result of a political compromise. Opponents say they believe the process was unfair.  They say the new law still gives too much power to the president.

The proposed constitution must be voted on before the general election that President Mugabe wants to hold this year. The eighty-eight year old leader plans to run for office again. He has led the nation since independence in nineteen eighty.

Priscilla Misihairabwi-Mushonga, a minister and secretary-general of the Movement for Democratic Change, says the proposed document is not perfect.  But she says the document she helped write is an improvement on the current constitution.

The minister says the proposal gives women more rights, and that it limits presidential powers.  The document introduces presidential term limits to two five-year terms.  However, the law would only be effective immediately and would not consider past elections.  That means Mr. Mugabe could legally serve another two terms before having to resign.

The proposed constitution appears to limit the presidential powers.  It also brings the Central Intelligence Organization under the supervision of the government.

But Constitutional opponent Lovemore Madhuku says the writing of the proposed document was not fair.  He says there should have been greater participation from the average Zimbabwean in creating the document, instead of just accepting what top officials wrote. Mr. Madhuku leads the National Constitutional Assembly, a coalition of pro-democracy groups.

"Our major problem in Zimbabwe has been the concentration of power in the president.”

No matter what the results of the vote on the proposed document, the constitution is only as strong as the government that follows it.I’m Mario Ritter.