(Johannesburg) – Several Southern African Development Community (SADC) member countries narrowed the political space for voices critical of the government in the past year, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2016.

“Opposition parties, journalists, and rights activists have come under renewed pressure in several SADC countries the past year,” said Dewa Mavhinga, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “All SADC countries need to do more to end political repression in the region.”

In the 659-page World Report 2016, its 26th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth writes that the spread of terrorist attacks beyond the Middle East and the huge flows of refugees spawned by repression and conflict led many governments to curtail rights in misguided efforts to protect their security. At the same time, authoritarian governments throughout the world, fearful of peaceful dissent that is often magnified by social media, embarked on the most intense crackdown on independent groups in recent times.

SADC should do more to address human rights issues in member countries, Human Rights Watch said. Botswana, which heads SADC until August, should play a leadership role in pressing for the restoration of the human rights mandate of the SADC Tribunal, which would enable people to petition the regional court for justice.

SADC countries of key concern in 2015 were Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Africa, Swaziland, and Zimbabwe.

Angola
The government of President José Eduardo dos Santos pledged to improve its rights record but severely curtailed the rights to freedom of expression and association. In March 2015, the Angolan government said it would accept many of the recommendations from an October 2014 United Nations Human Rights Council review of the country’s record. However, in the same month, Angola passed a restrictive law regulating nongovernmental organizations, including cumbersome registration requirements and restrictions on funding from abroad.

Security forces cracked down on independent media, human rights activists, and other critics with criminal defamation lawsuits, arbitrary arrests, unfair trials, intimidation, harassment, and surveillance. Two prominent rights activists were sentenced to prison terms following unfair trials. Security forces used excessive force against peaceful protests and other gatherings. In June 2015, police arrested 15 activists who had gathered to read and discuss books on peaceful resistance. In Huambo province in April, police killed a number of followers of a religious sect during an operation to arrest the group’s leader.

Democratic Republic of Congo
Security and intelligence officials in Congo clamped down on activists and opponents of political maneuvers to allow President Joseph Kabila to run for re-election beyond his constitutionally mandated two terms, ending in December 2016. Security forces shot peaceful demonstrators, jailed activists and party leaders, and shut down media outlets as the government increasingly resorted to violent repression.

In the country’s east, the security situation remained volatile. Numerous armed groups carried out deadly attacks on civilians, while government security forces also committed serious abuses.

South Africa
Among South Africa’s human rights challenges, the government struggled to stop attacks on the businesses and homes of refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants, denying that such attacks were motivated by xenophobia or other forms of intolerance.

The government did not provide for the right to basic education for an estimated half million children with disabilities. Rights groups expressed concerns about the continued underreporting of rape and the government’s failure to introduce a national strategy to combat the high rate of violence against women.

The report of the Farlam Commission of Inquiry into the deaths of 44 people, including the police killing of 34 miners in 2012, was finally published, but some expressed disappointment with the findings. President Jacob Zuma continued to face criticism over his handling of a 2014 report by the public protector about the president’s alleged misuse of state funds for a security upgrade to his private residence.

In June 2015, South African authorities violated a domestic court order and its international obligations as a member of the International Criminal Court when it permitted President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan to leave the country without arrest. Bashir, who faces charges of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity in connection with the conflict in Darfur, was in South Africa for an African Union Summit.

Swaziland
Respect for human rights and the rule of law declined in the Kingdom of Swaziland, ruled by an absolute monarch, King Mswati III, since 1986. Political parties are banned, judicial independence is severely compromised, and repressive laws are used to target critics of the government and the king.

As in previous years, Swazi authorities severely restricted civil and political rights. In March 2015, police beat leaders of the Trade Union Congress of Swaziland (TUCOSWA) and the Swaziland National Association of Teachers (SNAT) and prevented them from holding a meeting, ostensibly because the discussions would have included calls for multiparty democracy. Among those severely beaten was a prominent trade unionist, the SNAT Secretary General Muzi Mhlanga.

The Suppression of Terrorism Act, the Sedition and Subversive Activities Act of 1938, and other similarly draconian legislation provided sweeping powers to the security services to halt meetings and protests and to curb criticism of the government, even though such rights are protected under Swaziland’s 2005 constitution. In September 2015, eight human rights defenders challenged the constitutionality of these security laws in the High Court of Swaziland. A final ruling has yet to be handed down.

Zimbabwe
President Robert Mugabe consolidated his grip on power and implemented no meaningful human rights reforms in 2015. In December 2014, Mugabe fired the reformist vice-president, Joyce Mujuru, accusing her of disloyalty, and replaced her with co-vice presidents implicated in serious past rights abuses, Emmerson Mnangagwa and Phelekezela Mphoko. Mugabe secured the endorsement of the ruling ZANU-PF party to be the 2018 presidential candidate – when he will be 94 – appointed his wife to head the party’s women’s wing, and amended the party constitution to allow him to make all senior party appointments.

The government faced severe socioeconomic challenges and failed to adequately invest in desperately needed public services such as water, education, health, and sanitation. About 82 percent of the government’s budget was allocated to civil service salaries, much of which disappeared through corruption. The International Monetary Fund estimated that Zimbabwe’s external debt obligations were over 80 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.

The police and state security agents harassed, threatened, and arbitrarily arrested people who criticized Mugabe or his government, including rights defenders, activists, government opponents, and street vendors. No progress was made toward justice for past human rights abuses and political violence. Authorities mock and violate the rights of LGBT people, though the government allowed formal gatherings of LGBT activists as part of the International Conference on AIDS and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in Africa (ICASA), held in Harare in early December.

“Human rights are not merely aspirational but oblige all governments to uphold them to protect the freedoms and meet the needs of all the people,” Mavhinga said. “Improvements in human rights are vital to the betterment of people’s lives across Southern Africa.”