ZAMBIA: ‘The abolition of the death penalty is a victory for civil society calling for respect of the right to life’

MacdonaldChipenziCIVICUS speaks about Zambia’s recent abolition of the death penalty and the role played by civil society with Macdonald Chipenzi, outgoing Executive Director of the Governance, Elections, Advocacy, Research Services (GEARS) Initiative Zambia, a civil society organisation (CSO) that promotes democracy and electoral integrity.

What led to the recent decision to abolish the death penalty in Zambia?

Though the issue of the death penalty has been controversial and divisive in Zambia for some years now, and some people wanted to keep it on the statute books, there were various reasons behind the government’s decision to abolish it.

First, since Zambia was declared a ‘Christian Nation’ in 1992, only one execution of a death warrant was done, in 1997 by then-president Fredrick Titus Jacob Chiluba. Since then, no president has been willing to sign a death warrant for any convict condemned to death. Another president, Levy Patrick Mwanawasa, even vowed never to sign any such warrant because he did not want human blood on his hands. The abolition of the death penalty was necessary both for consistency with the declaration of Zambia as a ‘Christian Nation’ whose belief in the Bible is unequivocal and to keep up with regional and global trends.

Second, Zambia committed to abolishing the death penalty in the course of its successive Universal Periodic Review (UPR) examinations at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), the latest of which took place in 2017. Several donor missions repeatedly reminded the state of Zambia that it must do away with death penalty and several meetings were attended in Geneva by successive Ministers of Justice on the same matter. Arguably, the desire for Zambia to have a tangible presentation on its commitments to the UNHRC to offer at the next UPR session, slated for later this year, explains the speed at which the abolition process has proceeded.

Third, there was consistent advocacy from a majority of civil society towards the abolition of the death penalty to comply with the principle of respect for the right to life enshrined in our constitution. The constitution has not been amended because this would require a referendum, but the elimination of the death penalty from the Penal Code means no court will be able to issue a death sentence and the highest sentence for those convicted of capital offices will be life imprisonment.

The development is therefore a victory for the CSOs that have been consistent in calling for the abolition of the death penalty and for respect of the right to life in Zambia. The death penalty was in contradiction to both the provision on the right to life in the constitution and the ethos of Zambia as a Christian Nation. However, there remains the gigantic job of removing the death penalty from the constitution – which is important to do, because if one day the country is led by a bloodthirsty leader they could still apply it if they find a constitutional provision allowing it.

How has civil society, and GEARS Initiative in particular, advocated for the abolition of the death penalty?

We found the basis to anchor our advocacy work for the abolition of the death penalty in the decades-long practice by Zambian presidents of refusing to sign death warrants against convicts sentenced to death. This made the death sentence clause of the constitution redundant and strengthened the position of human rights and pro-life CSOs.

Advocacy took the form of submissions to Constitutional Review Commissions and the African Union’s African Peer Review Mechanism as well as position papers presented at local and international meetings such as the UPR sessions where the Zambian government was present. CSOs also made presentations and submissions at international forums and had one-on-one meetings with foreign missions of countries that had abolished the death penalty and with those of states concerned with human rights, such as the European Union, the UK and the USA.

UPR sessions and pre-sessions and parallel events, including a recent one that GEARS Initiative was able to attend with support from CIVICUS, were used as a platform to advocate for the repeal of the death penalty. The creation of a critical mass of human rights CSOs synergised partnerships for joint and consistent advocacy activities that helped build momentum and compelled the government to act. It was also very crucial to build working synergies with local and international media to disseminate advocacy initiatives.

What are the next steps in your work?

There are a number of remaining repressive or archaic laws that should be repealed, reviewed or amended. These include the Public Order Act (1955), the NGO Act (2009), the Cyber Security and Cyber Crimes Act (2021) and the Contempt of Court Law, which is part of the Penal Code, among others. Except for the latter, the rest are already under review, with draft bills ready to be presented before the National Assembly. The Public Order Act, for instance, is being replaced with a Public Gatherings Bill.

Our next steps are to continue advocating for a speedy legal review process of these repressive laws by undertaking public engagement and media activities, auditing obnoxious sections of these laws and submitting our reports to state authorities and other stakeholders, including the media, CSOs, donor communities and parliamentarians. This may entail hiring legal consultants to do desk reviews, identify the sections that need to be replaced and recommend alternatives that are justifiable from the perspective of a democratic society. This, will of course, require the investment of more technical and financial resources.

What kind of support do you need to continue doing this work?

Last year, GEARS Initiative received short-term financial and technical support from CIVICUS and two US-based organisations – the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law and the National Democratic Institute – to conduct legal analyses of the NGO Act, the Cyber Security and Cyber Crimes Act and the Public Order Act and report back on what and why they needed to be repealed or replaced. The negative impact of the continued existence of these laws was analysed and shared, not only with media and civil society, but also with citizens, including in local and rural communities.

But for 2023, GEARS Initiative has not yet secured any support for its advocacy work towards the repeal of repressive laws. All our projects had short-term funding that ended in 2022, and had visible positive impact: they kept the government on its toes and pushed it to close the year with draft bills that it promised to table before the National Assembly in its first session starting in February 2023. GEARS Initiative was included in the Technical Committee on repeal and replacement of the Public Order Act and was further requested to make submissions on the review of the NGO Act and the Cyber Security and Cyber Crimes Act.

GEARS Initiative will need financial and technical support to be able to sustain the advocacy activities it embarked on in 2022. In collaboration with like-minded CSOs, GEARS Initiative wants to continue reviewing the various repressive laws that restrict civic and democratic space in Zambia, conducting community, stakeholders’, media and government engagement around the findings of those reviews, and advocating for the replacement of obsolete or repressive legislation.

Civic space in Zambia is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

Get in touch with GEARS Initiative through its Facebook page.



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