Edgar Lungu’s forced return of Zimbabwean opposition politician and asylum-seeker Tendai Biti is highly embarrassing and annoying.
It’s annoying because it destroys our country’s highly honourable record of being a home for all who feel persecuted and are in fear for their lives.
Outside those persecuted by the apartheid and white minority regimes in southern Africa, our country has been a home for Ghanaians, Nigerians, Ugandans and all who felt unsafe to continue living in their countries.
Biti expressed the intention to seek asylum in Zambia at the border.
Edgar handed over Biti to his country of origin despite a court order to the contrary.
Edgar, as a lawyer ought to have known that refoulement or forcibly returning refugees and asylum-seekers to their country of origin is a serious violation of international refugee law.
Eight or nine months ago, Emmerson Mnangagwa himself had ran away from Zimbabwe, in fear for his life, and illegally entered Mozambique on his way to South Africa to seek refuge there. No one in South Africa handed over Mnangagwa.
And Biti is not the only Zimbabwean politician to go into exile after Mnagagwa took over power. Prof Jonathan Moyo is in exile in Kenya or some other country.
Last week Edgar allowed Moses Katumbi who is at loggerheads with his country’s government and is wanted on all sorts of offences to be in Zambia on a political mission.
Why these double standards?
It’s political expediency on Edgar’s part. He wants to be in good terms with Mnagagwa for his own personal political survival.
But Edgar is setting a very dangerous precedent that will come to haunt him and his minions. With the many violations and abuses they have committed, seeking refuge in other countries may not be a far fetched possibility. Anyway, Edgar is guaranteed refuge in his now second homeland of eSwatini. But what about his corrupt and ruthless minions?
Edgar should know very well that handing back asylum seekers is called refoulement. And it’s illegal.
For Edgar the political importance of pleasing Mnagagwa by handing back Biti is a higher priority than protecting him according to international law.
In this context, it’s heartening that the French have come to the rescue with a word that expresses what in English requires a multiplicity of words – “refoulement”.
Refoulement is the forcing back of people to their place of origin where they are expected to face persecution or threats to life and liberty on the basis of political opinion or membership of a particular political group.
This is precisely what Edgar did in Biti’s case, ignoring a court order.
Zambia has non-refoulement obligations under both the refugee convention and the convention against torture: “No State Party shall expel, return [refouler] or extradite a person to another State where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.”
It doesn’t get more straight forward than that.
And persecution here means serious harm, systematic and discriminatory conduct.
Serious harm amounts to a threat to the person’s life or liberty; significant physical harassment of the person; significant physical ill-treatment of the person; significant economic hardship that threatens the person’s capacity to subsist; and denial of capacity to earn a livelihood of any kind, where the denial threatens the person’s capacity to subsist.
There are no shortage of reports and studies that have identified those very circumstances as ones faced by Biti last week.
Edgar has taken us into a whole new territory as a result of disregarding our human rights obligations under international.
Conceivably, it opens the path to more embarrassment globally as a human rights pariah.