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King Mswati III of Eswatini addresses the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly, September 25, 2019. © 2019 AP Photo/Richard Drew

(Johannesburg) – Eswatini authorities should ensure that security forces deployed in the wake of protests respect citizens’ rights and observe international standards of law enforcement, Human Rights Watch said today.

Eswatini, Africa’s last absolute monarchy, has been ruled by King Mswati III since 1986. The country has been rocked by five days of violent protests triggered by the king’s decree banning petitions to the government calling for democratic reforms.

“The Eswatini government should ensure that security forces act within the law, and avoid arbitrary use of force,” said Dewa Mavhinga, Southern Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “They should put in place a range of measures to safeguard citizens against violence and to prosecute all unlawful use of force.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed eight protesters by phone. They described both indiscriminate shooting at protesters by security forces and violence by some protesters.

The waves of protests began in May 2021, when students and teachers protested the alleged killing by the police of Thabani Nkomonye, a law student at the University of Swaziland. The authorities have initiated an investigation into the killing, but protests escalated in late June when about 500 youths took to the streets in the Manzini district, 30 kilometers from the capital, Mbabane, demanding democratic reforms. The authorities responded by banning protests and deployed soldiers and the police to disperse protesters. The national police commissioner, William Dlamini, warned that there would be “zero-tolerance” of breaches of the ban.

Eswatini’s acting Prime Minister, Themba Masuku, issued a statement on Twitter on June 29 appealing for calm, restraint, and peace, and dispelling rumors that the king had fled the country. Masuku then issued a second statement saying that the government had heard the protesters’ concerns and was addressing them, saying that the ban on petitions was “by no means stifling Eswatini citizens from raising grievances.” He confirmed that security forces were on the streets and declared a nationwide curfew between 6 p.m. and 5 a.m. with immediate effect.

Maxwell Dlamini, a youth activist, confirmed to Human Rights Watch media reports that soldiers had shot at protesters indiscriminately. The opposition People’s United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO) Secretary General, Wandile Dludlu, said in a statement seen by Human Rights Watch that the army shot at protesters with live ammunition in Matsapha and critically injured five people. Dludlu said that the security forces had arrested at least 12 protesters. Human Rights Watch was unable to independently verify claims by some activists that at least seven people had been shot dead during the ongoing protests.

A witness in Mbabane told Human Rights Watch on June 29 that the protesters in various groups including youths and political activists blocked roads, set fires in the streets, ordered all shops to shut down, and told people to leave town. Witnesses said that on June 25, some protesters looted shops and set one ablaze during clashes with the police in Msunduza township, near Mbabane.

A protester told Human Rights Watch on the phone that they were targeting the king’s many business properties and government buildings and intended to burn down everything because the people are suffering under his rule and living in extreme poverty while he lives lavishly. Three witnesses said that they saw security forces fire bullets and teargas on protesters in Manzini.

Several activists and residents in Mbabane said that the internet was shut down from about 4:30 p.m. local time on June 29 until around 9 a.m. on June 30. Human Rights Watch was unable to verify the reason or source of the internet shutdown. On June 30, media groups African Freedom of Expression Exchange (AFEX), Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX), Panos Institute Southern Africa, and the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) sent a joint petition to acting Prime Minister Themba Masuku to ensure that the internet, social media platforms, and all other communication channels are open, secure, and accessible regardless of the protests that are currently taking place in Eswatini.

The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials stipulate that law enforcement officials, in carrying out their duty, shall, as far as possible, “apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force and firearms. They may use force and firearms only if other means remain ineffective or without any promise of achieving the intended result.”

Political parties have been banned in the country, formerly known as Swaziland, since 1973. The judiciary is severely compromised, and repressive laws have been used to target independent organizations and harass civil society activists. Over the years, there has been no progress on essential democratic and human rights reforms, including the removal of all legislative and practical restrictions to the registration and operation of political parties; allowing free, fair, and transparent democratic elections; and allowing for civil and political rights, including to freedom of association and expression. 

The international community, including the Southern African Development Community (SADC), should move quickly to support efforts to carry out democratic and human rights reforms in Eswatini and to ensure that the current situation does not deteriorate further.

“The latest wave of protests in Eswatini is a wake-up call for the king and his government to heed the legitimate calls for reform,” Mavhinga said. “Regional solidarity is needed to press Eswatini to usher in a culture of political plurality, accountability, and respect for the human rights of all Eswatini people.”

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