(Johannesburg) – The Southern African Development Community (SADC) should take concrete steps to improve respect for human rights among member states and strengthen regional human rights institutions, Human Rights Watch said today. Heads of state of the SADC’s 15 members will meet on August 17 and 18, 2015, in Gaborone, Botswana, for their 35th summit.
In recent years, SADC governments have taken retrogressive steps on rights, weakening and undermining the SADC tribunal and its mandate for human rights protection. In May 2011, SADC leaders dissolved the tribunal as it was then formed and in August 2014 adopted a new protocol for a tribunal that would be stripped of the authority to receive complains from individuals or organizations in the region. The proposed new tribunal will rule only on disputes between member states.
“Action to strengthen the SADC human rights tribunal is a litmus test for its commitment to human rights,” said Dewa Mavhinga, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “SADC leaders should change course and restore the tribunal’s power to receive and rule on human rights cases from individuals in member states.”
There are also concerns about human rights and rule of law issues in Angola, Swaziland, South Africa, and Zimbabwe, Human Rights Watch said. SADC member states have taken little action to ensure respect for human rights and the rule of law in all southern African countries despite identifying peace, security, and the promotion of human rights as key concerns within the region.
In Angola, the government limits the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. The excessive use of force, arbitrary arrests, and intimidation prevent peaceful anti-government protests, strikes, and other gatherings. Limited independent media, self-censorship, and government repression have curtailed free speech. The government has sometimes pursued criminal defamation lawsuits against outspoken journalists and activists, such as the profoundly flawed prosecution of a leading Angolan journalist, Rafael Marques de Morais, for publishing a book that exposed killings and torture in the country’s diamond fields. He was convicted and given a suspended prison sentence in May 2015.
In Zimbabwe, the government of President Robert Mugabe has ignored the rights provisions in the country’s new constitution, neither enacting laws to put the new constitution into effect nor amending existing laws to bring them in line with the constitution and Zimbabwe’s obligations under regional and international human rights agreements. The police use outdated and abusive laws to violate basic rights such as freedom of expression and assembly and to harass activists, human rights defenders, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people. There has been no progress toward justice for human rights violations and past political violence.
Zimbabwe’s leadership has also failed to address fundamental economic and social rights concerns. For instance, the government has turned its back on 20,000 people who fled their homes because of massive flooding at Zimbabwe’s Tokwe-Mukorsi dam in February 2014. The government has coerced the flood victims to resettle onto one-hectare plots at a farm with close links to his ruling ZANU-PF party where they lack adequate shelter, safe drinking water, and access to sanitation and health services.
In Swaziland, human rights conditions and respect for the rule of law have deteriorated significantly. Restrictions on political activism and trade unions, such as under the draconian Suppression of Terrorism Act, violate international law, and activists and union members risk arbitrary detention and unfair trials. The independence of the judiciary has been severely compromised, as exemplified by the grossly unfair trial of Bhekithemba Makhubu, the prominent editor of the country’s monthly news magazine The Nation, and Thulani Maseko, a human rights lawyer. Both were sentenced on July 25, 2014, to two years in prison on contempt of court charges, then released on June 30, 2015.
On June 17, King Mswati III fired Chief Justice Michael Ramodibedi for “serious misbehavior” following allegations of abuse of office and corruption. While that step won’t end corruption or ensure respect for the rule of law, it presents an opportunity for change and for Swaziland’s authorities – and its African neighbors – to demand an independent judiciary.
In South Africa, confidence in the government’s willingness to tackle human rights violations, corruption, and respect for the rule of law is being eroded. In April, xenophobic attacks on the businesses and homes of refugees, asylum-seekers, and migrants left several people dead and displaced thousands in Durban and Johannesburg. Yet the authorities deny that such violence against foreign nationals is motivated by xenophobia or other forms of intolerance.
In June, South African authorities violated a court order and permitted President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan to leave the country despite South Africa’s international legal obligations to arrest Bashir on an International Criminal Court warrant. Bashir, who faces charges of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity in connection with the conflict in Darfur, was in South Africa from June 13 to 15 for an African Union Summit.
“Respect for human rights and the rule of law can bring peace and stability and help drive the regional economic development that improves people’s lives,” Mavhinga said. “Botswana, which takes over as SADC chair for the next 12 months, should make promoting human rights in the region its legacy.”