South Africa must take a strong lead in addressing ongoing threats to basic human rights across the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region, Amnesty International said ahead of the 37th Heads of State Summit in Pretoria.
The country takes over from Swaziland as chair of the regional bloc at a time when several member states – including Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Zambia and Zimbabwe – face major political instability linked to elections that has put freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association in jeopardy.
The SADC summit began on 9 August and will conclude with the Heads of State Summit on 19 and 20 August.
“Under the leadership of Nelson Mandela the ‘new’ South Africa brought hope to the region – and to the world – that human rights violations of the past would be redressed and there would be justice and equality and respect for the human rights of all. As the country prepares to lead the region for the year ahead, this is the time to recapture that hope and give reality to the values that inspired it,” said Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for Southern Africa.
“This will also require the cooperation of other heads of state, who must do more to protect basic human rights and freedoms in their countries amid volatile political circumstances.”
In Angola, journalists and human rights defenders have repeatedly faced intimidation for exposing corruption and human rights violations ahead of the election due to take place on 23 August. Those taking to the streets to demand their rights have faced arrest and excessive use of force by police. In February, the police reportedly set dogs on a group of peaceful protesters in a pre-election related dispute.
In the DRC, the government missed its 2016 deadline to organize presidential elections on schedule. Since January 2015, protests against delays in organizing the elections were frequently met with brutal repression, including arbitrary arrests, detentions and unlawful killings by security forces.
Lesotho has been hit by a political and security crisis, resulting in a spike in human rights violations since 2014. Amnesty International has documented a pattern of arbitrary arrests and detentions of opposition party members, journalists, human rights defenders and members of the Lesotho Defence Force (LDF).
In Madagascar, the use of lengthy pre-trial detention against human rights defenders and journalists has been used to suppress freedom of expression. Several human rights defenders have been in pre-trial detentions for lengthy periods for exposing corruption and human rights violations.
In South Africa, the media is under attack for exposing corruption, including allegations of ‘state capture’ against President Jacob Zuma. News editors and journalists have been threatened and harassed, including being followed home by non-state actors and placed under surveillance. The country’s Sunday Times newspaper said it has increased security measures to protect investigative journalist Mzilikazi wa Africa, whose safety is believed to be at risk after he exposed corruption at the state electricity company, Eskom.
In Zambia, opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema and five of his employees were detained since 11 April on trumped-up treason charges after they allegedly failed to give way to a presidential convoy. They allege that they were beaten, teargassed and pepper sprayed on their genitals by the police during their arrest. They were released on 16 August after charges against them were dropped.
In Zimbabwe, parliament has failed to realign laws with the constitution adopted in 2013. The authorities continue to use oppressive laws such as the Public Order and Security Act (POSA) as well as the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) to suppress dissent and against journalists. Since last year, they have ramped up a clampdown against human rights defenders, suppressed peaceful public protests and in some cases prohibited public meetings. Police are regularly deployed to forcefully break up peaceful protests.
“South Africa must use its tenure as leader of the SADC to put a stop to the downward spiral in human rights in the region,” said Deprose Muchena.
“Leaders across southern Africa cannot ignore the plight of citizens who are being targeted for attempting to exercise their basic human rights.”