31 October 2012

Swaziland: Public Order Review Curbs Freedom

press release

Photo: Faatimah Hendricks/AllAfrica
File photo:Members of the press

FUNDAMENTAL FREEDOMS CONTINUE TO BE CURTAILED IN SWAZILAND

The full realization of fundamental rights and freedoms continue to be a myth in Swaziland as the Swaziland government is in the process of adopting a code of practice for protesters. According to the Times Sunday, this code is allegedly being drafted in conjunction with the International Labour Organization (ILO) and trade unions. With the code, the government seeks to regulate protected protest and industrial actions. Once promulgated, it will be adopted as an amendment to the Public Order Act of 1963 which ILO and the international community have called for review.

The Public Order Act regulates the holding of public meetings in Swaziland and requires police permission for the holding of certain categories of meetings and authorizes the police to control or prevent public meetings. The order authorizes among others the gathering or assembly of members of lawfully registered trade unions solely for purposes of that trade union's lawful activities. Also the Act permits a gathering convened and held exclusively for social, cultural, charitable, recreational, religious, professional and commercial or industrial purposes. It is important to note that the Act does not include meetings or public activities for political purposes and as a result of this deficiency many political activists and members of political parties have been arrested in the past for engaging in such meetings. This Act has also been used by the government to restrict labour movements from holding public gatherings and protest marches for collective bargaining.

The government has intensified restrictions on freedom of association and assembly in the past few years despite the constitution which guarantee same. According to section 24 of the Constitution, a person has a right to freedom of expression and opinion and such shall not be hindered without the free consent of such person. Furthermore, the Constitution guarantees the rights to freedom of assembly and association in section 25. Under the proposed code workers would be required to obtain permission of the route they will use for their protest from the municipality and further notify the police of the starting time and the estimated number of participants. Notably is the discretion that is vested on the police to determine if a protest action will be a danger to public peace and deny permission for holding such event. According to the code, the police have a general duty to uphold the law and may intervene if there is reasonable apprehension of breach of peace and particularly if there is anticipated violence.

In Swaziland, the police have been very brutal on protesters resulting to deaths and severe injuries. Workers have been beaten and arrested by the police for wearing and carrying promotional material for the Trade Union Congress of Swaziland (TUCOSWA) which was deregistered by the Swaziland government early this year. The Swazi government has used the police and other security agents to intimidate and punish protesters who challenge the current regime. During Swaziland's human rights status review in March this year, the international community recommended that the Public Order Act and other repressive laws be reviewed to allow the enjoyment of fundamental freedoms. This proposed code is therefore nothing but a reaffirmation of the Public Order Act since it does not include activities by political parties and bestow a wide discretion on the police. If the code is eventually adopted by stakeholders we anticipate the continued refusal by the police and local authorities to grant permission for protest marches and the strategic deployment of mass security agents who at times even outnumber protesters.

Centre for Human Rights and Development

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File photo:Members of the press

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