Billboard advertising the 2016 Southern African Development Community (SADC) Summit in Mbabane, Swaziland.

© 2016 Dewa Mavhinga/Human Rights Watch

(Johannesburg) – The Southern African Development Community (SADC) should take concrete steps to improve respect for human rights among its 15 member countries. SADC heads of state will meet on August 30-31, 2016, in Mbabane, Swaziland, for SADC’s 36th Summit.

“Political repression and disregard for basic rights characterized several SADC countries over the past year,” said Dewa Mavhinga, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “SADC governments need to ensure that they meet their human rights obligations and improve the quality of life for those who are most vulnerable.”

Child marriage remains a major concern in a number of Southern African countries, Human Rights Watch said. Half the girls in Malawi and one-third of girls in Zimbabwe marry before they turn 18. Girls who marry young often discontinue their education, face serious health problems from early and multiple pregnancies, and suffer greater sexual and domestic violence.

SADC member countries should align their laws to the SADC Parliamentary Forum Model Law on Eradicating Child Marriage adopted in June, including by setting and enforcing a minimum marriage age of 18.

Human rights concerns in Angola, Democratic Republic of Congo, Mozambique, Swaziland, South Africa, and Zimbabwe should get particular attention, Human Rights Watch said. SADC member countries have identified peace, security, and the promotion of human rights as key concerns within the region, but the individual countries need to take steps to ensure respect for human rights and the rule of law.

In Angola, the government of President José Eduardo dos Santos has pledged to improve its rights record, but instead has been severely curtailing the rights to freedom of expression and association. Security forces have used excessive force, arbitrary arrests, and intimidation to prevent peaceful anti-government protests, strikes, and other gatherings. In April, police gunfire wounded at least three people during a peaceful student demonstration against an increase in school fees in Caluquembe, Huila province. On August 6, soldiers fired live ammunition during a peaceful protest in Luanda, killing a teenage boy. There have also been reports of excessive use of force to evict people for development and agriculture projects.

In Zimbabwe, the government of President Robert Mugabe has disregarded 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 conventions. 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 LGBT people. There has been no progress toward justice for human rights violations during past political violence.

Itai Dzamara, a pro-democracy activist and human rights defender who was forcibly disappeared on March 9, 2015, remains missing. Dzamara, the leader of Occupy Africa Unity Square – a small protest group modeled after the Arab Spring uprisings – had petitioned Mugabe to resign and to reform the electoral system.

The government of the Democratic Republic of Congo has brutally cracked down on those who have spoken out against or opposed attempts to extend President Joseph Kabila’s time in office beyond his constitutionally mandated two-term limit, which ends on December 19, 2016. Since January 2015, government security forces have arbitrarily arrested scores of opposition leaders and activists, fired on peaceful protesters, banned opposition demonstrations, shut down media outlets, accused peaceful pro-democracy youth activists of plotting terrorist acts, and prevented opposition leaders from moving freely around the country.

In one of the latest attempts to curtail human rights reporting during a period of increased government repression, the Congolese government in early August 2016 blocked a senior Human Rights Watch researcher, Ida Sawyer, from continuing to work in the country.

The government should urgently free all political prisoners, allow Congolese and international rights defenders to continue their crucial work, permit activists and opposition supporters to protest peacefully and express their political views, and hold those responsible for the crackdown to account.

Meanwhile, the security situation in eastern Congo, where dozens of armed groups are still active, remains deeply volatile. In the Beni area, armed forces have killed more than 500 civilians in massacres since October 2014, according to local rights groups. The government needs to improve protection for civilians in the area, identify abusers, and hold them to account.

In Swaziland, which takes over as SADC chair for the next 12 months, human rights conditions have deteriorated significantly. The government has imposed restrictions on political activism and trade unions that violate international law, including potential bans under the draconian Suppression of Terrorism Act, and subjected activists and union members to arbitrary detention and unfair trials.

In Mozambique, the political and military conflict between the government and the opposition RENAMO party has resulted in increased human rights abuses. Since October 2015, tens of thousands of people have fled to Malawi because of abuses by the military, including summary executions, sexual violence, and mistreatment of people in custody. In Zambezia province, armed men linked to RENAMO have attacked hospitals and health clinics to loot medicine and supplies, threating access to health care for tens of thousands of people in remote areas. The Mozambican government has yet to publish its findings of an investigation of a mass grave found in May 2016 containing at least 15 bodies.

In South Africa, public confidence in the government’s willingness to tackle human rights violations, corruption and respect for the rule of law has eroded. The government has done little to address concerns about the treatment of migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers, or the root causes of xenophobic violence. The government has failed to ensure that an estimated half million children with disabilities have access to basic education. Rights groups expressed concerns about the government’s failure to develop a national strategy to combat the high rate of violence against women and the continued underreporting of rape.

“To achieve the SADC Summit theme of ‘enriching nations,’ SADC countries should seriously focus on respecting human rights, upholding the rule of law, and curtailing corruption,” Mavhinga said. “Transparency and justice will help drive regional economic development that can genuinely improve people’s lives.”