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SADC: Address Critical Concerns at the Heads of State Summit Meeting

Letter to Executive Secretary Tomaz Augusto Salomão

Dear Executive Secretary,

We write to urge you and the leaders of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to address critical human rights concerns affecting the region during the heads of state summit meeting from August 16 to 18 in Luanda. These include addressing country situations in Malawi, Zimbabwe, Swaziland, and Angola, and promoting and strengthening the work of the SADC Tribunal. 

SADC has an opportunity during these discussions to promote economic well-being, freedom and social justice, and peace and security for the people of the region, in keeping with its mission.

Country Situations

In Malawi, Human Rights Watch is concerned about how the increasingly repressive government of President Bingu Wa Mutharika has reacted to country-wide demonstrations against deteriorating economic conditions and a poor human rights record. On July 20, the government ordered security forces to fire live ammunition at mainly unarmed demonstrators, killing 19 people. During and after the demonstrations, police arrested hundreds of protestors, shut down independent radio stations, and intimidated, detained, and assaulted several journalists.

SADC leaders should call on the government of Malawi to open a prompt, independent, and transparent investigation into the killings and to hold to account those found responsible. They should also call on the government of Malawi to use restraint during any further protests, in keeping with international guidelines on the proper use of force in policing. Finally, we wish to reiterate that the people of Malawi have a right to freely assemble, peacefully express their views, and expect that their government will defend and advance their rights to socio-economic development and good governance. We ask SADC to reaffirm these important principles.

Human Rights Watch is grateful that SADC appears to be taking a stronger position on Zimbabwe, but, unfortunately, the Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), the former sole ruling party, has yet to demonstrate that it is committed to bringing an end to the country's crisis. In particular, we believe, Zimbabwe should ensure an environment conducive for elections and respect for human rights and the rule of law.

The Global Political Agreement – which  led to the formation of a power-sharing government between ZANU-PF and the two formations of the former opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) – calls for an end to violence and other abuses as well as the holding of peaceful elections.  However, Human Rights Watch has documented numerous incidents of politically motivated violence by ZANU-PF and its allies against real or perceived MDC supporters throughout the country. Since January 2011, ZANU-PF-controlled police have arbitrarily arrested scores of civil society activists and routinely threatened and harassed MDC members and supporters.

President Jacob Zuma of South Africa and his team of facilitators should be commended for their robust engagement on Zimbabwe recently, which has included insisting that elections should not take place in the current environment and drawing up a draft roadmap for elections to be held next year. However, there is still a lot more that needs to be done.

SADC should be looking for resources to create a long-term monitoring mechanism for the elections to include more than just mere observation of the polling day. SADC leaders should also continue to demand an immediate end to violence, arbitrary arrests, and intimidation of civil society activists and MDC supporters. They should call for reform of the state security sector, which is highly partisan, if not fully allied with ZANU-PF. 

The regional body should set specific benchmarks and timelines for electoral and human rights reforms in its roadmap and should review every step of the electoral process. SADC leaders need to make it clear that there will be consequences if ZANU-PF fails to adhere to the terms of the election roadmap and the GPA.

In the Kingdom of Swaziland, years of extravagant expenditure by the royal family, fiscal indiscipline, and government corruption on a massive scale have left the country on the brink of economic disaster. The downward spiral in the economy has been accompanied by a drastic deterioration in human rights conditions and respect for the rule of law. The Swazi authorities have reacted to criticism of their policies and governance record by using repressive tactics to clamp down on political activism and peaceful protests. 

For example, on April 12, the authorities responded violently to civil society plans for mass demonstrations by arresting up to 150 civil society activists and trade union leaders. Several were detained and beaten by the police, while others were placed under house arrest. The police and other security officials in Swaziland routinely use excessive force against political activists, unarmed demonstrators, and criminal suspects. The police engage in torture and other ill-treatment of detainees with impunity; victims of such abuses have no access to an independent complaints investigation body.

SADC leaders should call on the Swazi authorities to end torture and the excessive use of force by the security forces. SADC should also urge the Swazi authorities to respect fundamental freedoms, including the rights to freedom of association, assembly and expression, and remove in law and practice restrictions on the rights to political participation.

Finally, in Angola, where the summit is taking place, SADC leaders have an opportunity to call on the government of Eduardo Dos Santos to ensure an environment that is conducive for the holding of free, fair and credible general elections scheduled for 2012. Human Rights Watch is particularly concerned about ongoing and new restrictions on freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, despite a new 2010 constitution that guarantees fundamental rights.

The media environment in Angola continues to be restricted. The 2006 press law criminalizes defamation, and the necessary regulations to the 2006 press law, which would finally allow independent radio stations and community radios to be set up in the interior, have still not been enacted. Censorship and biased reporting favoring the ruling party continue to be pervasive in the state-owned media, while privately owned print media since 2010 have either come under financial and editorial control of government officials, or have been targeted by advertising boycotts and a wave of defamation lawsuits. A new state security crime law enacted in 2010, while abolishing some abusive provisions, introduced a provision that declares “insult” of the president as a crime against the security of the state.

The authorities have also banned an increasing number of peaceful public demonstrations and deployed security forces to threaten potential participants. Since February 2011, the ruling party has used intimidation and fears of civil war to deter people from participating in anti-government protests. Organizers of peaceful anti-government protest demonstrations have been targeted and threatened. There is no indication that the police have undertaken sufficient efforts to investigate such threats.

SADC should consider a long-term monitoring mechanism for the 2012 elections in Angola and publish full reports of findings ahead of the elections.

Promoting and Strengthening the Work of the SADC Tribunal

SADC leaders have an opportunity to reverse past decisions that resulted in the de facto suspension of the SADC tribunal and to adopt reform measures that strengthen, rather than weaken, the tribunal’s human rights mandate. In response to the Tribunal’s judgments on Zimbabwe’s land redistribution cases, the 13th SADC Summit, held in Windhoek in August 2010, ordered a review of the tribunal’s role, functions, and terms of reference, and instructed the tribunal not to take on any new cases. The review, completed early this year, dismissed Zimbabwe’s objections that the tribunal did not have legal standing. Since then, SADC has not renewed the terms of the judges eligible for reappointment and has ordered a longer review of the tribunal.

Considering the importance of regional tribunals in promoting human rights, we urge SADC leaders to unblock the tribunal’s proper functioning by ordering the reinstatement of its full bench (10 judges). We also urge SADC to immediately remove a moratorium on the hearing of new cases and to put in place an action plan for the implementation of the recommendations formulated by the first independent review of the tribunal.

We wish you well in your summit and look forward to your attention to these matters of concern.


Daniel Bekele
Director, Africa Division
Human Rights Watch 

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