After a harrowing day in March 2002, on the eve of the re-election of President Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwean lawyer Arnold Tsunga dedicated himself to defending human rights.
Arnold had traveled that day with several election observers to a rural part of the country to represent 150 people who he says had been arrested arbitrarily. On the way, a group of about 20 armed soldiers ambushed Arnold’s group and beat and questioned them for several hours in what Arnold believes was an effort to intimidate the locals. “The lesson was, if you do not vote for retaining Robert Mugabe in power, then there was going to be war,” says Arnold.
Shortly after, he resigned as a partner in a successful legal practice and became the founding executive director of the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights. The organization assembled lawyers from across the country to do pro-bono work for human rights defenders and political candidates. It also opened a hotline for human rights workers targeted by the government, sending a lawyer within half an hour to a scene of abuse, thereby preventing torture, solitary confinement, and false confessions, Arnold says.
Soon after its founding, however, the organization itself became a government target. State forces began beating lawyers and ransacking their offices. Arnold discovered that the state had targeted him for assassination.
With his life in danger, he applied for the Humphrey Fellowship both to leave Zimbabwe and for professional development. Arnold traveled to the University of Minnesota to study human rights law at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs.
“In Zimbabwe I was operating in a crisis mode,” says Arnold. “The regime sets the agenda. In Minnesota I was able to go through the process of sharing experiences, and making academic associations and professional mentorships.”
Arnold also became fascinated with how the United States had overcome conflict from the Revolutionary War to the Civil War to the civil rights era, a process he says is an inspiration for struggling African nations. “You can begin to see America as a nation that is evolving from serious internal contradictions. That is a model all of us learn when we come to the States.”
Since February 2008 Arnold has been director of the Africa program for the International Commission of Jurists, an organization of judges and lawyers committed to defending human rights. Working out of the commission’s new South Africa office, Arnold organizes training programs in southern and eastern Africa for judges, lawyers, and organizations to promote “good governance, human rights, and the rule of law.”
His work has gained worldwide recognition. In 2006 the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights presented him with the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders, and in 2007 he accepted the Freedom Defender’s Award from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on behalf of Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights.
“Arnold has had a huge impact in raising the profile of Zimbabwean issues in front of the international legal community,” says Laura Young, a staff attorney at the Advocates for Human Rights, where Arnold did a professional affiliation while in Minnesota. “He is very well respected across the African continent as an attorney and an advocacy figure.”