THE BLOG

From Angola To Zimbabwe, Human Rights Are Under Attack

From start to finish, 2016 has seen increased attacks on civil society and human rights across the region; a worrying trend that has had a truly chilling impact on activists and citizens in general.

15/12/2016 04:57 SAST | Updated 15/12/2016 04:57 SAST
Denis Farrell/AP
Riot police guard the entrance to a courthouse in Pretoria, South Africa, Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016, as an Economic Freedom Fighters supporter protests. Thousands of South Africans are demonstrating for the resignation of President Jacob Zuma, who has been enmeshed in scandals that critics say are undermining the country's democracy.

Arbitrary detentions, punishment of dissenting views, crackdowns on independent media, criminalization of peaceful expression, intimidation and harassment of political activists, journalists and human rights defenders. This is the shocking reality of the deteriorating human rights situation across Southern Africa. From start to finish, 2016 has seen increased attacks on civil society and human rights across the region; a worrying trend that has had a truly chilling impact on activists and citizens in general.

While images of the horrors in Aleppo and Mosul dominate the international news, it is sometimes easy to forget that away from the media spotlight – sometimes on our own back-door-step – human rights violations and abuses are occurring almost daily.

From Botswana and Lesotho, through Swaziland and South Africa, to Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe, though there have been some human rights gains in the past year, the overall picture is one where the negative outweighs the positive.

One particularly significant backward step was taken by Botswana which resumed the use of the death penalty after eight years, and executed a 65-year-old man on 25 May after he was convicted of murder. This retrograde move isolates Botswana in terms of a regional trend where many countries are moving away from using the death penalty, and becoming abolitionist in practice. The death penalty breaches two essential human rights: the right to life and the right to live free from torture. It is cruel, inhuman and degrading.

Some 800 kilometres away from Botswana in the kingdom of Lesotho, the cost of impunity for historic human rights violations was high for Lesotho Times editor Lloyd Mutungamiri who survived serious shooting by unknown gunmen on 9 July 2016. Lloyd had been the victim of an intense campaign of police intimidation and harassment for two years because of his fearless and independent journalism which often appeared critical of public officials. None was ever investigated or held to account for the threats he received in the past, and since he was shot no action has been taken either.

Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters
A Zimbabwean anti-riot police stand guard outside the Harare Magistrates court before the arrival of arrested Pastor Evan Mawarire, in the capital Harare, Zimbabwe, July 13, 2016.

In Angola, 17 young activists who had the courage to question corruption and bad governance languished in jail for most of 2016 after they were arrested and convicted for attending a meeting to discuss politics and governance concerns in the country. The arrest attracted global condemnation and campaign for the 17 to be freed; they were eventually freed in June.

In South Africa, often held highly for its founding human rights centred constitution and leadership role across the continent, protests by university students tested the police's commitment to human rights standards on use of force while carrying out their policing activities.

Security agents used excessive force against students as they protested high tuition fees and "colonised" education. In response to protesting students under the banner of #FeesMustFall, universities deployed heavy handed private security guards who assisted the South African Police Service in crushing some of the protests on campuses across the country.

The environment at the public broadcaster, South African Broadcasting Corporation, has become similarly toxic. Eight journalists were suspended in June for questioning editorial and political interference by the national broadcaster's executives. Seven of them have now been reinstated, but their future remains uncertain.

Political leaders in the region often use sovereignty to justify their punishment of human rights defenders when they face backlash from their foreign counterparts.

In Swaziland, the monarch continued his fight to retain two pieces of overly repressive legislation in their current form in spite of a court ruling that they were unconstitutional. Both the 1938 Sedition and Subversive Activities Act (SSA Act) and the 2008 Suppression of Terrorism Act (STA) have been repeatedly used over the years by the authorities to silence dissent and criminalize all forms political activism, effectively muzzling criticism and the right to freedom of expression.

In Zambia, the run up to the August Presidential election saw serious violations of human rights. Reported cases of politically motivated violence shot up. The Public Order Act, a British colonial era piece of legislation, was used to limit opposition political meetings and curtail the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.

Continuing its glaringly crackdown, the Zambian government also shut The Post newspaper on 21 June alleging that it owed US$6.1 million tax in arrears. The newspaper owners denied this, alleging selective application of the law by authorities to target the critical news organization.

In Zimbabwe, the right to freedom of association, peaceful assembly and expression came under sustained attack as citizens took to the streets to stand up against corruption and the declining economy.

Pastor Evan Mawarire, who was the face of the #ThisFlag movement was charged with incitement to commit public violence under the Criminal Law Act in July for leading the nationwide protests. He fled the country amid safety concerns.

The list goes on and affirms the deteriorating state of human rights across the southern Africa region. But this alarming roll back must stop. The stakes are high here and states cannot hide behind excuses of "sovereignty" to violate human rights with almost total impunity. Political leaders in the region often use sovereignty to justify their punishment of human rights defenders when they face backlash from their foreign counterparts.

For a start, governments of the region have an opportunity to build rights respecting societies as well as deal with the root causes of the problems that are driving public discontent, among which are the triple burden of unemployment, poverty and inequality.

At a sub-regional level, the governing body SADC, must up its game in monitoring the human rights situation in member states in line with the 1992 Windhoek treaty that puts forward principles of human rights and equality as a central organising principle of regional integration.

Southern Africa must urgently reverse this human rights decline and recommit to the international human rights obligations they have signed up to. We hope 2017 will reveal a different picture.