(Johannesburg) – Weak domestic and regional institutions undermined human rights in several Southern African Development Community (SADC) member countries during 2019, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2020.
Despite commitments to protect human rights in their constitutions, several countries struggled to promote human rights at home and failed to play a leadership role in placing human rights issues on the regional agenda. Countries of key concern in 2019 were South Africa, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Eswatini (formerly Swaziland). Angola made some progress, including by reviewing abusive colonial-era legislation against homosexual conduct and respecting the right to protest.
“With the SADC Tribunal stripped of its human rights mandate and domestic mechanisms too weak to protect rights, Southern African countries struggled to improve protection of social, economic, and political rights over the past year,” said Dewa Mavhinga, southern Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “South Africa, with its strong institutions, needs to show leadership in promoting rights in the region.”
In the 652-page World Report 2020, its 30th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in nearly 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth says that the Chinese government, which depends on repression to stay in power, is carrying out the most intense attack on the global human rights system in decades. He finds that Beijing’s actions both encourage and gain support from autocratic populists around the globe, while Chinese authorities use their economic clout to deter criticism from other governments. It is urgent to resist this assault, which threatens decades of progress on human rights and our future.
Economic insecurity, poverty, high unemployment, and inciting rhetoric by government officials, among other factors, led to xenophobic violence in 2019. On March 25, hundreds of foreign nationals in Durban were forced to seek shelter as mobs destroyed or looted their homes, trucks, and other belongings. That same day, the government issued a National Action Plan to combat xenophobia, racism, gender-based violence, and discrimination, and address the cycle of violence that plagues the country.
While an important step, the plan fails to address the lack of accountability for xenophobic crimes and has no clear implementation strategy. Virtually no one has been convicted for past outbreaks of xenophobic violence, including violence in Durban in 2015, and attacks in 2008 in which more than 60 people died.
While the ruling African National Congress’(ANC) 2019 election manifesto stated the party’s commitment to include “the needs of people with disability in all government programmes,” education in South Africa is not yet free for the majority of children with disabilities. Many children with disabilities, both in mainstream and special schools, are charged fees that other children do not pay.
The country is also struggling to address gender-based violence. The violence spurred an #AmINext movement on social media. Nationwide protests in September followed the killings of many women. According to Women’s Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, more than 30 women were killed by their spouses in August alone.
Despite President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s repeated commitment to human rights reforms, Zimbabwe remained highly intolerant of freedom of expression and assembly in 2019. During nationwide protests in mid-January following the announcement of a fuel price increase, security forces responded with lethal force, killing at least 17 people, raping at least 17 women, shooting and injuring 81 people, and arresting over 1,000 suspected protesters during door-to-door raids.
In the months that followed, dozens of activists, opposition leaders, and other government critics were arbitrarily arrested or abducted, beaten, or tortured by unidentified gunmen. There were few efforts to bring those responsible to justice.
The Zimbabwe authorities frequently used the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act on “subverting a constitutional government” to prosecute those suspected of organizing protests. Among the 22 human rights defenders who faced such arbitrary charges in 2019, 7 were activists who attended a workshop in the Maldives hosted by the Centre for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies.
The former president, Robert Mugabe, who died on September 6, was never held to account for the widespread human rights violations and a decimation of the country’s economy that were the hallmark of his 37 years in power.
The Mnangagwa administration made some efforts to amend or repeal repressive laws, including with the new Maintenance of Peace and Order Bill signed into law in November. But like the law it replaced, it potentially violates international human rights norms and standards, including the right to peaceful assembly.
Angola made some progress in respecting freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, but continued crackdowns on peaceful protests in the oil-rich enclave of Cabinda and the diamond-rich Lunda Norte province. In a significant step that is rare in the region, the government decriminalized same-sex conduct, but Parliament unanimously approved a retrogressive law that limits freedom of religion, leading to the closure of thousands of places of worship.
In August, president Filipe Nyusi and Ossufo Momade, the leader of the country’s main opposition party Renamo, signed a peace accord to end years of violence and pave the way for peaceful elections in October. A month later, Pope Francis visited, urging the strengthening of the accord. Nevertheless, the election campaign was marred by political violence targeting mainly opposition supporters.
Attacks by a suspected armed Islamist group increased in the northern province of Cabo Delgado. Soldiers in the region were implicated on intimidation and arbitrary arrest, and there was a rise in the intimidation and harassment of journalists and activists in the region.
Eswatini remained an absolute monarchy under King Mswati III, who has led the country since 1986. Eswatini has no legally recognized opposition parties due to a 1973 ban, despite the adoption of the 2005 constitution, which guarantees basic rights.
In a move significant for women’s rights, on August 30, the Eswatini High Court ruled that the common law doctrine of marital power, which gives a husband authority over his wife and their property, is unconstitutional. The progressive ruling builds on Eswatini’s law reform process, aimed at promoting and protecting women’s and girls’ rights, including the Sexual Offences and Domestic Violence Act of 2018.