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Kevin Dispatch

Constitutional Comparisons

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Zimbabwe is a very young democracy at only 20 years old. Most democratic states around the world (and within the U.S.) have used the U.S. as a model in creating their own constitutions. A constitution is important because it formally delineates the rights of either the individual citizen or the limitations of the state or federal governments. Constitutions are subject to major changes and even the process of making a change is usually outlined in the constitution itself. The highest or Supreme Court of the land is often obliged to interpret the original meaning of the constitution as applied to modern times and its judgments sometimes become major historical events that set ground-breaking precedents for future legal battles.

The primary elements of democracy, such as voting, representative power, and individual's rights, can apply to groups ranging from a very small number of people to nations with several hundred million citizens. The few youth groups I've observed in Zimbabwe have all created a printed copy of their own constitution that clearly states the aims of the group, the procedures to follow and the rights of the individual members. It is symbolic of their immediate desire to create an organization based on the democratic model regardless of the group's size or stature. Zimbabwe's current constitution was crafted as recently as 1979 at the Lancaster House in England by both British and Zimbabwean representatives. In 1996, several civic groups came together and formed the National Constitutional Assembly (NCA), which aimed to revise the country's constitution. Over 50 civic groups make up the NCA, including trade unions, student groups, women's organizations, religious organizations and churches, all human rights organizations, disabled persons' organizations, many traditional leaders, sections of the legal profession, residents associations, media organizations, and nearly all political parties and individuals opposing President Mugabe and his party the ZANU-PF.

In 1987, presidential power was increased when the Prime Ministerial position was terminated, leaving only an executive president and two vice-presidents to rule the country. The president may serve a term of six years and is unlimited in the terms that he may serve. Under the constitution, the president is immune to both criminal and civil action against him in a court of law while still in office (Chapter 4, Article 30, Section 1). Bill Clinton should only be so lucky! But Zimbabwe has an extremely low voter turnout (due to widespread mistrust of the government and political system), and Mugabe will likely remain unchallenged and in power indefinitely. As president, the constitution grants him unilateral power to declare martial law and to declare war or peace (as opposed to the U.S. where only Congress has that power, constitutionally speaking, that is). Mugabe has most recently waged an expensive war in the Democratic Republic of Congo for months, while ubiquitous high unemployment and poverty ravage his homeland.

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The cover story of Reader's Digest on Zimbabwe's President, Robert Mugabe
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It can be argued that because of the time at which the U.S. Constitution was created and the complexities that exist in a nation as large and diverse as ours, no other nation could truly function on a constitution that mirrors ours exactly. However, just by skimming the constitution of Zimbabwe, I was able to notice some very apparent differences, and some of these are on the list of articles that the NCA would like to see revised. The following examples are extracted from Chapter III of the constitution, which functions as the country's "Bill of Rights": It is considered lawful to kill a person if one is defending property from destruction (Article 12, section 1). Forced labor of prisoners is considered to be lawful (Article 14, section 2A) whereas it is no longer permissible in the US.

The "moderate whipping or infliction of corporal punishment on children below 18 years by their parents, teachers, headmasters..." is allowed (Article 15, section 3) and I'm sure none of you would want to see anything like that in our constitution!

A law may authorize the searching of persons and homes if doing so is in the interest of "public morality," which can be vaguely interpreted and therefor abused.

The "freedom of expression" is also limited due to these same considerations as well. One similarity in our two constitutional forms of government is the permissibility of the death penalty. Zimbabwe's constitution declares the "right to life" for its citizens and prohibits them from being subjected to "inhumane treatment" or torture, but does exempt capital punishment as ruled by a court of law from both of these provisions. On the other hand, our constitution makes no direct reference to the death penalty other than making sure that nobody is deprived of "life, liberty, or property without due process of law...(5th Amendment)". It also prohibits "cruel and unusual punishment" in the 8th Amendment, but the courts frequently determine capital punishment to be exempt from this category since convicts and even minors are put to death in the U.S. by lethal injection, electric chair, hanging, firing squad, and gas chamber.

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Some of the many articles critical of the constitutional reform process
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To counter the demands of the NCA, Mugabe set up his own Constitutional Review Commission. Mugabe has banned all NCA ads but has created countless television and radio ads publicizing the CRC. He personally is featured as a spokesperson for the ads as he announces, "A new constitution, a new era," and encourages citizens to, "Allow your voice to be heard" and, "Get involved!" His TV spots advertise a weekly Sunday show about the CRC and its constitutional review process. His commission is supposedly going out to the public to ascertain their views about constitutional reform, but what will ever become of the information gathered? Many people see the CRC as a public relations tool which is being falsely advertised as "democratic" by Mugabe.

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A political cartoon about how the people trying to reform the constitution don't quite fit
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It is not as "inclusive" as he advertises since it's made up of mostly ZANU-PF members and the majority of the groups in the NCA are not involved. And after all, the commission will ultimately submit a recommendation as to constitutional changes needed to him and he will either accept or reject it in the end. The constitution is the foundation for a relatively new democracy like Zimbabwe and the people are beginning to look past the rhetoric in hopes of ensuring that their voice is truly heard and that Zimbabwe is a nation run by its people.

Kevin
 

Kavitha - Spreading a Bad Seed - The Greed of Agri-business
Monica - Frustration Fuels Motivation - Education in Zimbabwe Through the Eyes of a Student Activist
Monica - An Interview With Ian Douglas Smith, It's All a Matter of Perspective
Monica- Teen Pen Pals Dream of Hollywood and Big Changes for Zimbabwe
Kavitha- Developing Countries, Big Daddy Corporations and the World Trade Organization

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