In 2022, the absolute monarchy in Eswatini, ruled by King Mswati III since 1986, continued to face waves of demonstrations that began in June 2021 against the drastically deteriorating human rights situation in the country, and the lack of democratic reforms. Intervention in November 2021 by South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa, then-chairperson of the Organ on Politics, Defense and Security Cooperation, of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), resulted in King Mswati agreeing to a national dialogue facilitated by SADC. There has been no progress toward instituting the Sibaya or “people’s parliament” dialogue format proposed by the king. The dialogue format has been rejected as undemocratic by the Multi Stakeholder Forum, an umbrella body of political parties, churches, local businesses, student groups and civil society organizations.
Conduct of Security Forces
Following the series of protests that began in June 2021, authorities continued to use excessive force and the threat of violence against activists and critics, some of whom were assaulted and harassed.
Members of parliament (MPs) who voiced support for the protests have also been targeted. MPs Mduduzi Bacede Mabuza and Mthandeni Dubehave remained in custody since they were arrested in July 2021, after calling for democracy. They are facing trumped-up charges of terrorism under the Suppression of Terrorism Act, and for the alleged murder of Siphosethu Mntshali and Thando Shongwe, who were knocked down and killed by a car in Mbabane during the June 2021 protests. Another MP, Mduduzi Simelane, fled to South Africa, following weeks in hiding, after the police issued a warrant for his arrest in July 2021.
According to media reports, a militarized police unit of the king, the Operation Support Service Unit, has repeatedly used excessive force, including firing live bullets into crowds, to break up sunset rallies. The rallies are a part of an anti-monarchy campaign tagged “Turn Up the Heat” organized since March by the Communist Party of Swaziland.
In February, the authorities detained, and allegedly tortured student union leaders, according to media reports, following protests by university students demanding scholarships and refund of hostels fees unused during the Covid-19 lockdowns. Riot police in April fired teargas and evicted protesting students from university campuses in Mbabane and Manzini.
Freedom of Association and Assembly
The Public Order Act of 2017 protects the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly, but with limitations, which the government has been using to restrict freedoms.
In a setback for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people, the High Court of Eswatini decided on April 29, in the case of Melusi Simelane and Others versus the Minister of Commerce and Industry and Others, that while LGBT people are entitled to all the relevant rights conferred under the Constitution because they are human beings, those rights are subject to other laws of Eswatini. The court went on to uphold the refusal of the Registrar of Companies to register an LGBT organization, Eswatini Sexual and Gender Minorities, because the criminalization of sodomy under the Criminal Procedure and Evidence Act rendered the purpose of the organization unlawful.
During its Universal Periodic Review (UPR) at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), several states made recommendations that Eswatini should take steps to decriminalize same-sex conduct, and to adopt legislation to give effect to LGBT rights.
Rule of Law, Freedom of Media
Despite repeated calls by protesters, Eswatini’s international partners, and other actors for rights reforms, there has been no progress on the removal of legislative and other restrictions to the free exercise of civil and political rights. This includes the repeal or amendment of laws that obstruct the freedom of association and expression, removal of the ban on the registration and operation of political parties; ensuring greater political freedoms through free, fair, and transparent democratic elections; implementing measures to increase women’s participation at decision-making levels, ensuring the right to health without discrimination; abolition of the death penalty; and decriminalization of same-sex relations and prevention of discrimination based on marital status and sexual orientation.
Reporters Without Borders in its 2022 world press freedom index ranked Eswatini 131 out of 180 countries, stating that the country prevents journalists from working freely and independently by maintaining total control over the broadcast media, infiltrating the newsroom, and spying on, arresting and harassing journalists.
In July, Prime Minister Cleopas Sipho Dlamini published an order declaring South African based online publication, Swaziland News, and its editor, Zweli Martin Dlamini, ‘terrorist entities’. He made the order on the recommendation of the Attorney General, Sifiso Khumalo, who accused Dlamini of publishing articles “that instigate violence, the burning of public and state property, the seizure of state power and the overthrow of lawful government.”
Women continue to be under-represented in leadership and decision-making positions in both public and private sectors, despite the provisions of the 2018 Election of Women Act, and the constitutional requirement of 30 percent representation quotas for women and marginalized groups in parliament.
Eswatini has ratified the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa, which provides, among other things, for the protection of women from harmful practices. Eswatini has a dual legal system, whereby the common law, based on Roman Dutch law, operates side by side with unwritten customary laws under which women are treated as dependents of their fathers, husbands, and traditional chiefs.
The government proposed two notable bills to parliament, in May, the Marriages Bill and the Matrimonial Properties Bill which seek to address some of these inconsistencies. The proposed bills include provisions to abolish marital power held by husbands over their wives’ ability to contract and to litigate, as well as provisions for the equitable distribution and equal access of spouses to matrimonial property
Key International Actors
Following the SADC fact-finding missions to Eswatini in 2021, King Mswati had agreed to hold a national dialogue, which has yet to take place. In April, the King removed Eswatini from the agenda of the SADC Organ’s Troika meeting where the national dialogue was supposed to be discussed. The July SADC extraordinary summit was postponed without further notice, due to the unavailability of Eswatini, which was on the agenda, according to media reports.
In March, the UNHRC adopted the outcomes of Eswatini’s UPR process, including recommendations to modify, repeal or amend the Public Order Act; the Suppression of Terrorism Act, and the Seditious and Subversive Activities Act; including recommendations to revoke the decree banning political parties; establish an independent human rights institution; adopt laws on prosecuting and investigating cases of torture and ill-treatment; abolish the death penalty; take all measures to combat arbitrary arrests and detentions, as well as to ensure fair trials.
In August, the Southern African Human Rights Defenders Network, the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum, the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, and the Southern African People’s Solidarity Network (SAPSN), among others, raised concerns about the King’s decree barring citizens from delivering petitions to parliamentarians, which has further worsened the country’s political and security situation. The organizations urged the government of Eswatini to create a conducive environment for comprehensive and genuine political dialogue.