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(Johannesburg) –The Southern African Development Community (SADC) should use the opportunity of its 25th anniversary to reaffirm its commitment to improve respect for human rights among its member states, Human Rights Watch said today. Heads of state of the SADC’s 15 members will meet on August 19-20, 2017, in Pretoria, South Africa, for their 37th summit.

Billboard advertising the 2016 Southern African Development Community (SADC) Summit in Mbabane, Swaziland. © 2016 Dewa Mavhinga/Human Rights Watch

In August 1992, in Windhoek, Namibia, 10 founding member countries signed the SADC treaty, which commits them to act in accordance with the principles of “human rights, democracy and the rule of law.” In recent years, however, SADC governments have taken regressive steps to weaken and undermine key rights protection mechanisms such as the SADC Tribunal. In August 2014, SADC leaders stripped the tribunal of its mandate to receive complaints from individuals and organizations, leaving it only to adjudicate disputes between member countries. This drastically undercuts its human rights protection mandate.

“To contribute to lasting peace and stability, and respond to the real needs of ordinary people, SADC leadership should vigorously implement regional and international human rights standards,” said Dewa Mavhinga, Southern Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “One important step would be to restore the SADC Tribunal’s mandate to consider human rights cases brought by individuals.”

In 2008, the regional leaders made efforts to protect women’s rights by adopting the SADC Protocol on Gender and Development, obligating member states to include women’s equality in their constitutions as a safeguard to prevent the use of other lower laws, including religious and customary laws, to undermine women’s equality. In reality, the sub-region continues to have high rates of forced and child marriages.

Half of the girls in Malawi and a third of girls in Zimbabwe marry before they turn 18. Human Rights Watch has documented the many factors that contribute to teenage pregnancies in Tanzania, including child marriage, lack of information about sexuality and reproduction, and sexual violence and exploitation. Tanzanian president John Magufuli recently said that adolescent girls who become pregnant will not be allowed back to school as long as he is president, contending that it would encourage other girls to have sex.

Girls who marry young are often denied a range of human rights: many discontinue their education, face serious health problems from early and multiple pregnancies, and suffer sexual and domestic violence. Southern African countries should align their laws to the SADC Parliamentary Forum Model Law on Eradicating Child Marriage, adopted in June 2016, to advance the rights of women and girls.

Other human rights problems affect the lives of ordinary people in Angola, Mozambique, Swaziland, South Africa, and Zimbabwe.

In Angola, in advance of the August 23 general elections, reports of political violence and slow investigations into attacks on political figures during the election campaign are worrying. On July 31, an official from the opposition, UNITA, died and six people were injured when unidentified men attacked him in Huambo. Angola’s authorities should urgently investigate the attacks, identify those responsible, and hold them to account. The lack of action sends a chilling message to the political parties and candidates.

The government’s restrictions on independent media, combined with a widely held perception of bias of state-run news outlets, deny millions of Angolans access to relevant and important information in advance of the election.

Since March 2015, Human Rights Watch has documented at least 10 cases of politically motivated killings in Mozambique. Both the ruling party, Frelimo, and the opposition Renamo shared with Human Rights Watch lists of several party members killed across the country in the past two years. Law enforcement authorities appear incapable or unwilling to effectively investigate these crimes, Human Rights Watch found. This creates an environment of impunity and fear, and hinders efforts to resolve Mozambique’s political tensions.

In May 2016, at least 15 unidentified bodies were found under a bridge in a remote area between the central provinces of Manica and Sofala. Local authorities allegedly ignored initial calls for a prompt and thorough investigation, and later announced that decomposition had made it impossible to conduct autopsies and that the bodies had been buried.

Pressure from human rights groups and the media forced the Mozambique government to exhume the bodies and start a police investigation. But more than a year later, no findings by the police have been released, and a parliamentary investigation team has yet to publish an account of its findings.

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 conventions. In addition, non-governmental organizations have reported that the police use outdated and abusive laws to violate basic rights such as freedom of expression and assembly, and harass activists, human rights defenders, and LGBT people. There has been no progress toward justice for human rights violations and past political violence.

Zimbabwe also faces serious threats to its ability to hold credible elections, including the involvement of security forces in political affairs and the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party’s endorsement of 93-year-old President Robert Mugabe as its presidential candidate amid rumors about his health. The involvement of security forces in Zimbabwe’s political and electoral affairs could, as in the past, severely undermine the credibility of the elections and raise the risk of political violence within political parties and across the country.

In Swaziland, political activism and trade unions are subject to restrictions that violate international law, including potential bans under the draconian Suppression of Terrorism Act, and activists and union members risk arbitrary detention and unfair trials.

In South Africa, authorities have repeatedly failed to take decisive steps to combat xenophobic violence and other forms of intolerance against foreign nationals. In July, the International Criminal Court ruled that South Africa violated its international legal obligations by failing to arrest President Omar al-Bashir when he visited South Africa for an African Union meeting. Al-Bashir has long been subject to two ICC arrest warrants on charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide committed in Darfur. South Africa should reaffirm its support for the ICC and continue to lead the fight for human rights and justice, as it has done in the past.

“All SADC countries need to improve the quality of people’s lives in accordance with their commitment to guarantee basic rights,” Mavhinga said. “South Africa, which takes over as SADC chair for the next 12 months, should make human rights promotion in the region the centerpiece of its legacy.”

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