HomeLocal News‘Stop criminalising human rights defenders’

‘Stop criminalising human rights defenders’

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By Moses Matenga

HUMAN rights defenders have been under siege in the Sadc region amid calls for governments to respect the law, democracy and rights.

The Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network (SAHRDN) has been at the forefront of protecting and defending HRDs in southern African countries while engaging stakeholders to follow the law and end the culture of human rights violations.

NewsDay senior reporter Moses Matenga (ND) speaks to SAHRDN team leader Washington Katema.

ND: Take us through your work as the Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network and what you stand for?

WK: Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network co-ordinates regional efforts to provide rapid, practical, holistic and gender-sensitive protection support to women and men human rights defenders (HRDs) at high risk, defends online and offline civic space, which is the oxygen for citizen voices and empowers HRDs to exercise their right to defend human rights and mitigate the effects of repression.

To this end, the Southern Defenders contributes to the respect and recognition of HRDs as legitimate actors and agents of social change with universally recognised and constitutionally guaranteed rights.

ND: What is the state of human rights in southern Africa and do you think the new crop of leaders in Sadc is doing enough to promote human rights?

WK: The state of human rights has deteriorated, more-so in the context of COVID-19, where governments treated citizens as the enemy and not as part of the solution to the novel virus.

COVID-19 worsened the pre-existing challenges, with several governments such as, but not limited to, Zimbabwe, Zambia under former President Edgar Lungu leveraging on COVID-19 emergency measures to suffocate both online and offline civic space, and disproportionately undermining human rights and other fundamental freedoms such as the right to freedom of assembly, expression and association.

In Zimbabwe, the lockdown is indefinite and is either supported by science or common sense.

COVID-19 started as a health crisis, then turned into a socio-economic crisis with inequality rising at an alarming alacrity, and before it transmogrified into a human rights crisis with women and children being the most affected.

In Eswatini, King Mswati III continues to treat citizens as subjects with very limited human rights.

There has also been the rise of digital authoritarianism as witnessed with the promulgation of the Cyber Security and Cyber Crime Act in Tanzania and Zambia, with Zimbabwe at the cusp of finalising the process of adopting a similar repressive Act.

The Private Voluntary Organisation (PVO) Amendment Bill and Patriotic Bill are both present and current existential threats to civic, democratic and civil society space, and are part of Zimbabwe’s ruling elite’s authoritarian consolidation project.

Military insurgences in Cabo Delgado province, Mozambique, remain a serious cause for concern for all human rights respecting people.

Nevertheless, the new crop of leaders in Sadc, namely President Lazarus Chakwera of Malawi and President Hakainde Hichilema of Zambia have been a sign of hope although the jury is still out.

President Chakwera has unusually called out King Mswati and called for an inclusive political dialogue and citizen responsive governance in Eswatini.

President Hichilema has opened the civic space and allowed all the human rights defenders who were exiled during the President Lungu administration to return and help rebuild Zambia.

ND: What would you consider as hotspots in southern Africa in terms of human rights violations, and what needs to be done to end the culture of violations?

WK: Zimbabwe and Eswatini have been two notorious outposts of tyranny in the region.

The human rights situation in Zambia was also fast deteriorating until President Lungu lost the August 12 presidential election to a reform-minded and business friendly President Hichilema.

And what is needed to end the culture of violations is the political goodwill to end the culture of impunity.

Leaders in Zimbabwe and Eswatini must respect their respective constitutions and comply with all the international human rights treaties and obligations they voluntarily signed.

ND: Human rights defenders claim to be under siege in Zimbabwe, with government enacting laws to bar them from operating freely. What is your position on the issue of apparent abuse of the actors?

WK: There is a disturbing phenomenon of criminalisation of human rights defenders and weaponisation of the law to curtail enjoyment of constitutionally guaranteed rights in Zimbabwe.

As Southern Defenders, we are very clear that the proposed PVO Amendment Bill in Zimbabwe is unconstitutional and is a significant existential threat to civil society groups and civic space in general.

We have asked the government to withdraw the PVO Amendment Bill which it has proposed for promulgation by Parliament in order to regulate the non-governmental sector working environment. Non-governmental organisations must self-regulate.

ND: Zimbabwe goes for elections in 2023. Do you think the environment is conducive and do you think human rights defenders are safe given the existing conditions?

WK: The hallmark of a democratic election is characterised by procedural certainty and outcome uncertainty, that the rules of the game and the games within the rules must be fair, and that there should be no predetermined poll results.

Post the disputed 2018 election, and after the ruling party didn’t receive the loser’s consent from the main opposition, which is critical for procedural legitimacy, Zanu PF has been on an unprecedented authoritarian consolidation path.

The defenestration of the main opposition party and banning of opposition politics in general has been as instructive as it is revealing of Zanu PF’s undemocratic agenda of having an election without choice, where their victory is predetermined.

In this context, human rights defenders are being targeted and attacked as the ruling party misconceives them as anti-ruling party because they tend to speak truth to power, and also work to hold to account those who are in power.

And most interestingly, the human rights defenders and social justice actors also hold to account those who want to be in power and in opposition.

ND: What is your position on the developments in Eswatini and the silence from Sadc and other regional bodies on the matter?

WK: Southern Defenders wrote to Sadc highlighting the root cause of the continued instability and steps that should be taken as a matter of urgency to resolve the ongoing political unrest.

These include absence of a constitutional democracy and a citizen centred, accountable governance system; restricted civic space and opportunity for dialogue; and worsening socio-economic conditions and rising inequalities as a result of a concentration of wealth and economic power in the hands of the few ruling elite and politically connected persons in Eswatini.

We support the calls for reforms by the citizens of Eswatini, in particular, an all-inclusive mediated political dialogue/negotiated transition, total unbanning of all political parties and release of all prisoners of conscience, an inclusive national transitional authority, a democratic constitution, and  a democratic election and a multi-party, rights respecting democratic dispensation.

ND: We have seen you in different countries engaging stakeholders on human rights issues, how has been the response from stakeholders and leaders you have met?

WK: We have interfaced with a number of very brave human rights defenders who are at the coalface of repression in their respective societies.

And as Southern Defenders, we work together with these human rights defenders to reduce their vulnerabilities and improve their safety and security to ensure that they are safe, but not
silent.

We have also engaged with supply side institutions such as human rights commissions in Mozambique, South Africa and Malawi and the responses have been quite encouraging with the human rights commission in Mozambique committing to establish a human rights defenders desk in the commission.

We also met with the newly-elected Zambian Vice-President, Mutale Nalumango, on the election day, and she made a commitment to continue working with and mentoring women human rights defenders in the region.

  • Follow Moses on Twitter @mmatenga

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