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Southern African countries ‘struggling’ to protect human rights, says HRW

Human rights in Southern Africa are being undermined by weak domestic and regional institutions, said Human Rights Watch on Wednesday at the Johannesburg launch of its World Report 2020. This comes despite the fact that most countries in the region have committed to protect human rights in their constitutions.

South Africa, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Eswatini were singled out in the report as countries of key concern.

Dewa Mavhinga, HRW’s Southern Africa director, said that regional hegemon South Africa needs to take a more prominent role in protecting human rights in the region. “It’s a huge disappointment,” he said. “Southern African countries struggled to improve protection of social, economic and political rights over the past year. South Africa, with its strong institutions, needs to show leadership in promoting rights in the region.”

Mavhinga added: “South Africa needs a more human rights-oriented approach in its domestic policies as well as its foreign policy.”

Within South Africa, HRW highlighted xenophobic violence and the near-total lack of accountability for these crimes as a major issue, along with gender-based violence and the government’s failure to provide free education for the majority of children with disabilities.

In Zimbabwe, the rights group highlighted the brutality of state security forces, whose tactics this year against activists and protestors has included widely reported incidents of murder, rape, assault, torture, abduction and arbitrary arrests.

Mozambique came in for criticism for the political violence targeting mainly opposition supporters that occurred during last year’s election campaign; and the attacks by armed militants in Cabo Delgado province, along with the army’s response to these attacks which has included intimidation and harassment of journalists and activists.

Despite noting that Eswatini has no legally recognised opposition parties and remains the continent’s only absolute monarchy, HRW hailed the court ruling in August which overturned the common law doctrine of marital power, which effectively gave a husband full control over his wife and their property.

There was also some positive news from Angola, which made headlines this year with a high-profile anti-corruption campaign and the decriminalisation of same-sex conduct. Yet the country also passed a law which limited freedom of religion, leading to the closure of thousands of places of worship.

The HRW World Report, now in its 30th year, reviews human rights practices across the world. This year the special focus was on China and its effect on the global human rights environment. In a scathing introductory essay, HRW executive director Ken Roth wrote: “China’s government sees human rights as an existential threat. Its reaction could pose an existential threat to the rights of people worldwide.”

Roth was denied entry to Hong Kong on Sunday, where he had planned to lead the global launch of the report. 

“I had hoped to spotlight Beijing’s deepening assault on international efforts to uphold human rights. The refusal to let me enter Hong Kong vividly illustrates the problem,” he said.

The Hong Kong government has not commented on the matter.

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Simon Allison
Simon Allison
Simon Allison is the Africa editor of the Mail & Guardian, and the founding editor-in-chief of The Continent. He is a 2021 Young Africa Leadership Initiative fellow.

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