Africa: Swaziland Under Fire At the African Commission

analysis

The government of Swaziland and the country's absolutist monarchical system has once again come under fire at the Africa Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights (ACHPR) in Banjul.

A series of Swazi civil society groups took to the floor at the 54th Ordinary session of the ACHPR to lambast their government for holding undemocratic elections, violating people's rights and refusing to implement previous recommendations of the Commission.

Two years ago, the ACHPR adopted a resolution calling on the Swazi authorities to take all necessary measures to ensure the conduct of free, fair and credible elections in 2013.

Needless to say, King Mswati III and his clique took no notice of the resolution and the recent polls were once again held under the undemocratic Tinkhundla system, which bans political parties from participating - violating Swazis' rights to freedom of association and assembly.

During its submission, the Human Rights Association of Swaziland (HUMARAS) stressed that while the September elections were largely free of violence, they could not be seen as credible because "despite appeals from citizens and Swaziland's regional and international friends, including this very Commission, the exercise of freedom of association remained severely curtailed. The election once again took place under a no party system."

HUMARAS urged the Commission to call on the Swazi government to "put in place enabling legislation for the unequivocal unbanning, recognition, registration and operationalization of political parties in the country" so as to usher in multiparty democracy, which operated in Swaziland from independence until 1973 and which is - crucially - supported by the majority of the people and civil society.

And indeed by the Africa Union electoral mission, which criticised the absence of political parties during the elections and called on the government to implement the ACHPR's 2012 resolution to "respect, protect and fulfil the rights to freedom of expression, freedom of association and freedom of assembly."

HUMARAS also urged the Commission to encourage the Swazi authorities to take additional steps that would help take the country forward, including ratifying the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance; convening an all-inclusive national dialogue aimed at normalising the political environment in the country; and stopping the harassment and intimidation of human rights defenders and political activists (and their families,) who are working towards promoting democracy and good governance.

Indeed, HUMARAS also gave a separate statement on the situation of human rights defenders, highlighting the continued existence of restrictive laws (such as the Sedition and Subversive Activities Act; Public Order Act and Suppression of Terrorism Act, which all violate human rights instruments that Swaziland is a party to) and the lack of effective access to justice delivery structures, which are compromised by a lack of independence and interference by the executive.

HUMARAS singled out the moribund Swaziland Human Rights Commission - the status of which underlines the authorities' complete disregard for Swazi's fundamental rights. "Since its establishment four years ago, legislation has not been passed to operationalize it in an independent manner. It is located in a royal enclosure and deemed unfriendly to human rights and political activists."

If that were not enough, HUMARAS added that "women in mourning and wearing trousers are not permitted to enter that enclosure."

And to cap it all, the group pointed out that the "Commission rarely makes statements on or responds to report on human rights violations."

Unsurprisingly, HUMARAS called on the ACHPR to urge the Swazi government to operationalize the Human Rights Commission as well as to remove unjustified legal restrictions on the human rights and fundamental freedoms of Swazi citizens and to ensure that its security forces and other state agents do not interfere in the legitimate and peaceful work of human rights defenders.

Meanwhile, after raising similar concerns about the 2013 elections, the Lawyers for Human Rights Swaziland (LHR(S)) also told the Commission that the government had still not amended the law to allow TUCOSWA (the only workers' federation in the country) to be registered despite its undertakings before the International Labour Organization in Geneva - so there is still "no workers' federation in Swaziland, although there is an employer's federation."

The lawyers also highlighted that the media was under attack and that the judiciary is "perceived to be lacking independence as a result of the compromised manner of appointing judges and the role of the Judicial Service Commission."

Considering the litany of criticisms, the LHR(S) implored the Commission to consider another mission to Swaziland and to encourage the Swazi government to submit its periodic report to the Commission as well as to urge the authorities - echoing the demand from HUMARAS - to operationalize the National Human Rights Commission.

Interestingly, Women and Law in Southern Africa (WLSA) began its submission by commending the government for (finally) passing the Sexual Offences and Domestic Violence Act and for (finally) ratifying the Maputo Protocol. But its praise-singing did not last long.

Firstly, WLSA called on the state to "go beyond ratification [of the Protocol] and begin processes of domesticating and implementing this very important and progressive African instrument." And the group also urged the government to allocate resources to enforce the new sexual offences act.

And secondly, WLSA made it clear that "discrimination persists in all spheres of life and is continuously reinforced by the socio-cultural norms that relegate women to inferiority and in turn subordination" and that senior government and traditional authorities regularly made pronouncements that contradicted the State's articulated aims to attain gender equality - and yet nothing was done to rein them in.

For example, during the election campaign, a chief told his community not to vote for a widow, while another young woman was stopped from being nominated as she was wearing trousers. Neither woman won a seat. And in neither case was anyone disciplined. Indeed, the chief was reappointed to parliament by the King.

Even worse, only one woman was elected to parliament - a "very serious regression" - while the King did not follow the constitution and appoint at least five women to the House of Assembly. But as WLSA pointed out, "because of constitutional immunities, we cannot challenge this in any court of law."

It will be interesting to see how the ACHPR acts now, especially after its earlier resolution was treated with such contempt by the Swaziland government.

But considering that the AU electoral mission criticised the recent polls and that civil society has once again issued a clear, coherent and powerful call for action, the Commission will surely adopt another resolution calling on Swaziland to implement reforms?

But will King Mswati and his regime take any more notice in 2014 than they did in 2012?

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