Swaziland stands at the human rights precipice

By Jeffery Smith - 8 September 2015 at 8:16 am
AP File Photo

AP Photo/Susan Walsh

The next several days in Swaziland — Africa’s last absolute monarchy — will be paramount to determining the prospects for a semblance of democracy and the protection of basic human rights in this little known country of 1.2 million people.

Starting today, Swaziland’s High Court will hear a constitutional challenge to two of the country’s most draconian laws: the Sedition and Subversive Activities Act and the Suppression of Terrorism Act. Together, these two pieces of legislation have formed a ruthless legal vice that has been used to restrict an already closed political space in which dissent is criminalized and free expression and assembly rights virtually nonexistent.

First enacted in 1938 by the British colonial government, the Sedition and Subversive Activities Act makes it illegal to criticize or “excite disaffection” against the monarchy. Ironically, Swaziland celebrated 47 years of independence this past weekend, all while its beleaguered citizens continue to suffer under the yoke of colonial-era laws. The 2008 Terrorism Act, which draws more recent inspiration from the United States’ Patriot Act, has been used to suppress freedom of expression in particular, often violently and with absolute impunity.

Ordinary Swazis, and particularly those who espouse criticism of the prevailing conditions in the country, face a dire situation. Nevertheless, there has been a glimmer of hope for those seeking a reason, however small, to be optimistic about the democratic forecast: on June 17, the country’s absolute monarch, King Mswati III, fired one of his closest allies and chief purveyors of inequality, Chief Justice Michael Ramodibedi, following credible charges of abuse of office and corruption. While Ramodibedi’s dismissal was a positive development for the kingdom and its people, his removal will not end the chronic and deeply engrained corruption that has plagued the country for decades, nor will it ensure that the rule of law will be upheld, or otherwise respected.

To be sure, Swaziland is not the peaceful, bucolic backwater that its authorities wish to present to the world. Like many architects of repressive regimes the world over, Swaziland’s King Mswati III — in power since 1986 — banks on the presumption that the world will not notice, or make a fuss about, the widespread human rights abuses taking place under his direction– not to mention his notoriously profligate and wasteful spending, while nearly 50% of his subjects live in chronic poverty. The overall situation is so toxic that Swaziland recently became one of only three countries — which have not undergone a military coup — to have their African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) eligibility revoked due to unresolved human rights concerns. The other two countries are The Gambia and South Sudan– not exactly the best of company.

King Mswati has, over the years, increasingly and brazenly clamped down on human rights in Swaziland, conveniently capitalizing on a state of emergency that was first declared in 1973 by his father, King Sobhuza II. In effect to this day, the state of emergency banned public protests and political parties, later deeming the main opposition movement a “terrorist organization,” a pretext that has been repeatedly used to harass, intimidate and imprison outspoken critics and would-be challengers to royal authority. Indeed, despite Swaziland’s outward veneer as a peaceful enclave of “traditional African values,” the kingdom is home to a widespread culture of fear that pervades every conceivable facet of society.

Since taking power at the age of 18, King Mswati’s unlimited authority has allowed him to shut down independent newspapers and media outlets, ban trade unions, and run roughshod over a constitution that has little worth beyond the paper it is written on, due in large part to a methodically pliant judiciary that bends to his royal whims. To put this in perspective: the Swazi crown has managed to lose only one court case during Mswati’s reign, a case in which authorities attempted to prevent women from owning land in their own name. I witnessed the judicial charade firsthand last November, during an appeal hearing for human rights activist Thulani Maseko and magazine editor Bheki Makhubu, both of whom were sentenced to two years in prison for bravely criticizing the country’s lack of judicial independence. Unsurprisingly, both the trial itself, and the subsequent appeal hearings in Swaziland’s Supreme Court, blatantly contravened international standards for a fair and impartial trial.

On June 30 of this year, Thulani and Bheki were finally released after spending 470 days in prison – a portion of which Thulani spent in solitary confinement – merely for exercising their fundamental and constitutionally protected right to freedom of expression. The outpouring of international support for the two men surely contributed to their early release, and that spotlight must continue to shine if the momentum is to be sustained and thereby provide much-needed life to Swaziland’s besieged and beaten pro-democracy movement.

Freedom of expression and respect for human dignity are vital components to a functioning democracy and to a culture of respect for human rights. While the release of Thulani Maseko and Bheki Makhubu from prison — as well as several other high profile political prisoners — should be applauded, Swazi authorities must begin to systematically dismantle the kingdom’s prevailing infrastructure of injustice. The Sedition and Subversive Activities Act and the Suppression of Terrorism Act should be the first to go, and rightly declared unconstitutional (importantly, Thulani Maseko is also facing charges under the Sedition and Subversive Activities Act, following his arrest in 2009).

No longer should these oppressive laws — which are clearly inconsistent with Swaziland’s international human rights obligations and its own constitution — be allowed to silence a citizenry, as well as their legitimate aspirations for a more just and equitable society. The world will certainly be watching — and just as significant — eager to embrace a more democratic Swaziland in which basic human rights are upheld and protected, not trampled on with callous impunity.

Jeffery Smith

Jeffery Smith

Jeffrey Smith is an Africa specialist at Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights. Follow him on Twitter at @Smith_RFKennedy.

Twitter: @Smith_RFKennedy

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