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Published On: Thu, Sep 1st, 2016

Sadc is failing to protect human rights

SOUTHERN African Development Community (Sadc) leaders gather in Mbabane, Swaziland, on Tuesday for the 36th heads of state summit, with the human rights situation across the region in a state of flux.

BY ALFREDO TJIURIMO HENGARI

The 1992 Windhoek treaty that established the regional bloc places huge importance on human rights, and specifically anchors the principles of Sadc in human rights, peace, security and equity.

While the region is relatively peaceful by continental standards, progress in realising the human rights principles and objectives set out in the treaty has been painstakingly slow.

In fact, in some member states, there has been a noticeable rollback of human rights in recent years.

This has resulted in remarkable departures from the international obligations of member states, as encapsulated in other major human rights treaties that the majority of Sadc members are party to, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

A confluence of factors has been responsible for this decline. At 3.5%, economic growth in sub-Saharan Africa is at its lowest point in more than a decade.

A global economic slowdown is consolidating old inequalities and generating new ones, as worsening food insecurity and rising levels of poverty stalk the region.

With high levels of state under-preparedness to withstand such economic shocks, it is hardly surprising that public discontent has become more strident. Across the region, people are demanding government protection from spiralling inflationary pressures and an impossibly high cost of living.

Yet states are unable, or unwilling, to offer compelling solutions to these legitimate demands for housing, health, food, water, and sustainable development. Instead, they are resorting to repressive legislation, which in turn is shutting down the space for civil society and human rights defenders to do their legitimate work.

The government of Angola has enacted draconian legislation covering the registration of nongovernmental organisations, making it difficult for them to be legally recognised or receive foreign funding. The legislation’s intentions are clear: to restrict the space for civil society.

In Zambia, an erstwhile beacon of the right to freedom of expression, the independent media have been muzzled. The Public Order Act has been used consistently by the government to thwart the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association. The clampdown on opposition supporters, combined with the unwelcome normalisation of hate-speech in the country, gave rise to the most violent electoral cycle since the country’s return to multi-party democracy in 1991.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the promise of the 2002 Sun City Accord, which created opportunities to strengthen human rights through a new constitution, hangs in shreds.

In Lesotho, we have witnessed serious human rights violations in recent years, with extrajudicial killings, unfair trials, securitisation of the state and intimidation of human rights defenders and journalists becoming unwelcome features of the human rights situation.

In Zimbabwe and Swaziland, a poor human right record is underpinned by a lack of the rule of law. The independence of the judiciary is routinely flouted, and the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association is rarely enjoyed.

These retrograde moves are threatening the commitment to human rights made by Sadc at its inception, and it will take bold leadership to reverse the downward spiral. A good place to start would be to create new rights-respecting accountability mechanisms within the Sadc region.

Hengari is Amnesty International’s deputy regional director for Southern Africa.