A leading local human rights body has slammed the government for its alleged failure to protect the human rights of ordinary citizens by decisively addressing the human trafficking concerns raised by the United States (US) government.
In a statement to the Lesotho Times last night, the Transformation Resource Centre (TRC) accused the government of paying lip service to the US government's concerns. It said the lack of seriousness in addressing the issue could affect human rights of Basotho and lead to the loss of economic opportunities which Lesotho had gained over the years from US development assistance programmes such as the multi-million-dollar Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC).
It said the failure to deal with trafficking could also result in the US carrying out its threat to revoke Lesotho's eligibility for preferential trade benefits under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA).
The TRC's remarks come against the background of a warning three weeks ago by the US Ambassador to Lesotho, Rebecca Gonzales, that unless it addressed human trafficking concerns by 1 February 2021, Lesotho risked losing billions of maloti in funding under the MCC second compact as well as eligibility for AGOA on which the entire local textiles sector is anchored.
The AGOA law allows Lesotho to export textile products to the US duty-free, making them highly competitive. It was on the basis of AGOA that many Taiwanese and Chinese entrepreneurs came to Lesotho in the early 2000s to establish large textile factories that now employ about 45 000 Basotho. But those jobs are now at risk due to the government's failure to address the US government's concerns of official complicity in human trafficking. Without AGOA's duty free status, Lesotho's textile exports into the US cannot compete with those from well-established and competitive textile manufacturers like Vietnam, Bangladesh and China.
Ms Gonzales further warned that Lesotho also risked losing out on health funding under the US President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) which had helped the country make substantial strides in containing the deadly HIV/AIDS pandemic.
In addition, the country will also lose out vital security sector assistance programmes, such as police and military training events and exchanges, which are crucial to Lesotho's plans of implementing security sector reforms in line with the 2016 recommendations of the Southern African Development Community (SADC).
Lesotho was placed in Tier 3, the lowest ranking in the US State Department's Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report for 2020.
Normally, a country in Tier 3 automatically loses all forms of US assistance but Ms Gonzales revealed that she had recommended a waiver of any punishment against Lesotho to enable Dr Majoro to act on the issue since he had only assumed office as recently as 20 May 2020.
Last month, Ms Gonzales said Lesotho had to take concrete actions to retain its eligibility for development assistance which included making substantive progress in its investigations of "credible allegations of official complicity in human trafficking, arresting suspects and prosecuting them in the courts of law".
Last week, Home Affairs Minister Motlalentoa Letsosa said the government had submitted its report to the US government detailing the measures it has taken to address the latter's concerns about alleged rampant human trafficking.
He however, refused to say what was contained in the government's response or whether it had done enough to address the US concerns.
However, the TRC feels there have not been any tangible investigations of suspected trafficking crimes particularly against high profile individuals.
"The TRC is concerned by the lack of seriousness on the part of the government of Lesotho to address issues of human trafficking," the TRC said in its statement.
"This is evidenced amongst others, by the lack of tangible investigations into alleged heinous crimes of human trafficking and constant polarisation of this sensitive human rights issue.
"The TRC is concerned that whenever a political figure is suspected of a crime, the issue is immediately presented as a fight among political parties seeking to tarnish each other's reputations and that way the matter is never actually investigated and prosecuted to its logical conclusion.
"The current concerns on human trafficking are not an exception. Politicians in Lesotho have the unfounded position that institutions supporting human rights and democracy such the police should not be used to scrutinise their conduct. This unfortunate perception is aimed at discouraging and frustrating state institutions' attempts to scrutinise and hold the executive accountable. The police, prosecution and judges must do their constitutional duties without any political interference," the TRC said.
The human rights body also castigated the government for refusing to make public its human trafficking report to the US government.
"The government of Lesotho's decision not to disclose its response to such heinous crimes flies in the face of principles of accountability and transparency. It is expected that the government should conduct its administrative functions in an open way without any unwarranted secrets so that the public can believe and trust that government is genuine and fair in conducting its affairs."
The TRC therefore urged both the Lesotho and US governments to disclose the contents of the report.
Ironically, Mr Letsosa is deputy leader of the Democratic Congress (DC) party whose senior officials have been accused of involvement in human trafficking activities.
Deputy Prime Minister Mathibeli Mokhothu leads the DC, the second biggest party in the governing coalition led by Prime Minister Moeketsi Majoro of the All Basotho Convention (ABC) party.
Messrs Letsosa and Mokhothu have both denied allegations implicating their party in trafficking activities. They have dismissed the allegations as the work of their detractors bent on tarnishing their image to scupper their chances of winning next year's crucial general elections.