Swaziland: Promise to respect human rights must move from paper to action

It’s a forgotten landlocked country in Southern Africa, one of the smallest in Africa. Bordered by South Africa and Mozambique, Swaziland, the last remaining absolute monarchy in Africa often escapes scrutiny.
That was until August, when King Mswati assumed the rotating chair of the regional governing body, the Southern African Development Community (SADC), putting the country back in the spotlight.

At the domestic level, the judiciary showed unprecedented courage. In a landmark ruling on 16 September, Judge Jacobus Annandale declared sections of the outdated 1938 Sedition and Subversive Activities (SSA) Act and the draconian 2008 Suppression of Terrorism (STA) Act unconstitutional and therefore invalid. Consequently, charges against the applicants, human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko, and proscribed opposition party leaders Maxwell Dlamini, Mario Masuku and Mlungisi Makhanya should automatically fall away.

Unfortunately, this has not happened. The government has now launched an appeal, challenging this progressive judgement. The state’s decision to appeal is a missed opportunity for Swaziland to show its commitment to the rule of law, by upholding the judgement.

What this judgement meant is that people who hold different views from the Swazi government would be able to express themselves without fear of reprisals. Moreover, the judgement demonstrated the independence of the judiciary from the executive and legislative branches of government. It affirmed the supremacy of the constitution. Rooted in the principle of the separation of powers, an independent judiciary is essential to protecting human rights against abuses of power. Ultimately, the rule of law should be the rule rather than the exception.

The attempt by the government to reverse the court judgement by launching an appeal is a worrying development for human rights defenders in Swaziland who, skeptically, cautioned that it was a bittersweet victory.

Swazi human rights defenders were apprehensive, since this judgement came at a time when the Swazi government was restricting the space of civil society. Other threats to the right to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly loom.

If the current version of the Public Order Bill, which uses the pretext of maintaining public order to undermine the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, is passed, this judgement may be meaningless. The Bill, expected to be passed by the Senate, is only a signature away from becoming law.

A draft access to Information Bill is also in place. This Bill purports to create a culture of openness, transparency and accountability in public bodies. However, if South Africa’s Secrecy Bill is anything to go by, this could be another uphill battle for Swazi civil society in future.

Political parties in Swaziland are still banned. The Minister of Justice announced at the UN Human Rights Commission last month that the country is not yet ready to allow political parties to register and contest political power.

At the international level, Swaziland surprisingly received unprecedented attention. Last month, the country concluded its third Universal Periodic Review, a process that measures the human rights performance of all UN member states every four years. Sixty-nine countries made a total of almost 200 recommendations to the Kingdom of Swaziland for consideration.

The country can be commended for its commitments on paper to women’s rights. Head of the Swazi delegation, Edgar Hillary, Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs, announced at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva on 22 September that the government accepted, amongst others, to ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. It establishes a mechanism whereby individual Swazi women will be able to submit complaints to the UN body about grave or systematic violations of their human rights. Swaziland also accepted to align its national laws with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and to adopt “without further delay” the Sexual Offenses and Domestic Violence Bill, a piece of legislation that has been on the table for a decade, yet remains elusive.

While Swaziland has taken a few steps in the right direction recently, there remains a long journey ahead, before all human rights are fully and effectively protected in the country.

The danger of making lofty commitments to the international community in Geneva is that the people more than 12 000 kilometers away in Mbanane may not enjoy the benefits soon. The spotlight is on the Swazi authorities. As the new chair of SADC, this is a golden opportunity for the Swazi leadership to show it will uphold the commitments made to the international community, because, after all, the government’s primary responsibility is to protect the human rights of all the people it serves. 

Shireen Mukadam is Amnesty International’s Southern Africa Researcher



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