Southern Africa Development Community: Address free expression, human rights in member countries
As the 15 member states of SADC prepare to meet for the 34th Summit of Heads of State and Government in Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe on August 17 and 18, 2014, the three human rights organizations drew attention to serious human rights concerns in Angola, Malawi, Swaziland, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe will take over as chair of the regional body at the meeting.
“SADC's commitment to human rights will come into question if Zimbabwe, as chair of the regional body, does not expedite the process of aligning its laws with the constitution and state institutions do not live up to the regional and international best practices,” said Irene Petras, director, Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights.
SADC has been criticized for its laxity on making human rights compliance within its member states a priority. It is important to address the issue for the sake of the SADC reputation, the organizations said. Under Zimbabwe's leadership, SADC should press for human rights improvement across the sub-region, particularly in Angola, Malawi, Swaziland, and Zambia.
“Human rights are central to achieve sustainable economic development and regional integration,” said Deprose Muchena, Southern Africa director at Amnesty International.
“SADC should strive to create conditions for all to enjoy their economic, social, civil, and political rights. SADC leadership must respond to the real needs of ordinary people and vigorously implement regional and international human rights standards.”
As Zimbabwe takes over the chair of SADC for the next year, the country is enforcing laws that violate fundamental human rights protected under the May 2013 constitution. Nor has there been any move toward justice for past political violence.
Zimbabwe's leadership is also failing to address fundamental economic and social rights. For instance, many people in Harare have little access to potable water and sanitation services, violating their right to water, sanitation, and health.
In the country's diamond fields, greater transparency is needed on diamond production, revenue and the allocation of mining rights.
Although Angola's 2010 constitution guarantees the internationally protected rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly as well as media freedom, the government has increasingly limited these rights.
The government has pursued numerous criminal defamation lawsuits against outspoken journalists and activists, while using excessive force, arbitrary arrests, and intimidation to prevent peaceful anti-government protests, strikes, and other gatherings.
Limited independent media, self-censorship, and government repression already restrict free expression in Angola. In addition to prosecuting and intimidating independent journalists and civic activists, the government has achieved passage of laws restricting media freedom, dragged its feet in allowing privately owned and community radio stations to operate, censored state-owned media, and sought to control the existing privately owned media.
Only three per cent of the population has access to the Internet and social media, the main channels for commenting on government policies.
In Malawi, the May national elections have reaffirmed the strength and independence of the country's key government institutions, including the judiciary, the security forces and the elections management body.
SADC leaders should call on the government to continue on the path of democratization and promotion of human rights by incorporating in domestic legislation all of the international human rights instruments to which the country is party.
Malawi should take decisive steps to end discrimination and protect sexual minorities as well as ensure gender equality and the protection of women's rights in all spheres of society. The country should also make a commitment to further the realization of economic and social rights as well as to a sustained fight against corruption that undermines those rights.
The lack of respect for and protection of human rights is a serious concern in Swaziland, though human rights are enshrined in the country's new constitution as well as in international law.
These include the right not to be subjected to torture, the right to a fair trial, the rights to freedom of expression and association, the right to equality, and the progressive realization of economic and social rights, as well as access to an effective remedy when those rights are violated.
However, there has been a drastic deterioration in human rights conditions and respect for the rule of law in the kingdom in recent years. Political activism and trade unions are subjected to restrictions in violation of international law, including banning under the draconian Suppression of Terrorism Act, arbitrary detention and unfair trials. The independence of the judiciary has been severely compromised.
The Swazi authorities respond to criticism with repressive tactics to clamp down on peaceful protests and criticism voiced through the media. The government's use of the Suppression of Terrorism Act and other security laws that violate the principle of legality to intimidate, harass and prosecute independent organizations and critical voices is a particular concern.
In a very recent example of this pattern, Bhekithemba Makhubu, the prominent editor of the country's monthly news magazine The Nation, and Thulani Maseko, a human rights lawyer, were sentenced on July 25 to two years in prison on contempt of court charges after a grossly unfair trial.
SADC leaders should call on the Swazi authorities to respect fundamental freedoms, including the rights to freedom of association, assembly, and expression, the three groups said. SADC should press the government to remove legislative and practical restrictions on the rights to political participation.
The observance of human rights requirements has steadily declined in Zambia since the Patriotic Front government came into power in 2011. The constitution-making process has stalled and laws have been proposed to restrict operations of nongovernmental organizations, Opposition parties are being targeted with politically motivated prosecutions. Government officials also incite hatred against LGBTI people, leading to increased arrests and prosecutions.
“To achieve the SADC Summit theme of economic transformation, Zimbabwe and other countries in the region should promote good governance, uphold the rule of law and respect human rights,” said Tiseke Kasambala, Southern Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Genuine transparency and justice help drive the regional economic development that improves people's lives.”