Swaziland in 'deep crisis'

Amnesty International has sounded a warning of a “profound humanitarian crisis” in Swaziland, a state it slates for its poor human rights record where the king and his royal advisers pay scant regard to courts, the Parliament and international treaties.

This comes in a week when Swazi King Mswati III is reported to have approved plans to spend R24-million on building five new palaces for his 11 wives.

“The existence of a parallel executive government in the form of traditional advisors to the king, who is head of state and the government with legislative and ‘inherent judicial powers’, creates a high level of uncertainty in the sphere of governance and the administration of justice,” an Amnesty report, released on Thursday, states.

Politicians are summonsed to the Royal House and forced to resign on suspicion of being government critics; the judiciary is hounded for making unpopular rulings that are duly overturned by royal decree or compliant judges. The media is harassed into toeing the line and opposition political parties are violently kept in check.

These are but a few in a litany of violations documented by Amnesty in its report entitled Swaziland: Human Rights at Risk in a Climate of Political and Legal Uncertainty.

The report shows how the government’s contempt for court rulings and judicial independence has denied people legal redress and allowed impunity for perpetrators of violations. Swaziland has been without an appeal court since 2002 after all the judges resigned in protest over the then-prime minister Sibusiso Dlamini’s refusal to abide by two rulings of the country’s highest court. King Mswati’s failure to intervene is described as evidence that he had “ordered or agreed with the prime minister’s actions”.

The report does point out that current Prime Minister Themba Dlamini has asserted the importance of upholding the rule of law, but there is still no breakthrough towards acceptance of the 2002 Court of Appeal rulings. The individuals whose rights were affected — awaiting-trial prisoners and families forcibly evicted from their homes in October 2000 — remain without access to legal remedy. The judicial vacuum also means that a number of civil and criminal cases, including one involving the imposition of a death sentence, at appeal stage cannot be concluded.

Amnesty bemoans the “persistent pattern of human rights abuses ... violations of women’s and children’s rights, arbitrary detentions, abusive policing involving the use of excessive force, torture and other forms of ill-treatment, and mass forced evictions”.

An evictee from Macetjeni in the Lubombo region recounts: “The people who were supposed to protect us came and broke down everything and took away everything ... We were all driven away ... The government uses nice words to describe what happened, they don’t like to hear the word ‘eviction’, but that is what it was, a forceful eviction.”

That the stakes behind these political struggles are high is evident in the scale of poverty, disease and under-development in the country. Swaziland has the highest HIV prevalence in the world. Aids-related conditions account for about 90% of hospital admissions and the number of Aids orphans is growing rapidly.

The United Nations’s Food and Agricultural Organisation included Swaziland as one of 24 countries in sub-Saharan Africa facing “food emergencies”. Two-thirds of the people live below the poverty line, in stark contrast to the king who squandered R270-million in public funds on a down-payment for a luxury jet and last year spent R9-million on luxury cars for relatives.

There is growing consensus that laws and practices that discriminate against women and girls, as well as sexual and other forms of violence against them, are helping to fuel the HIV/Aids pandemic.

Swaziland is drafting a new Constitution, but that process has also been mired in controversy for its lack of transparency and inclusiveness since its inception in 1996.

There are clear disagreements between sectors of Swazi society. Traditional advisory bodies fear that Swazi law and custom and the institution of the monarchy will be undermined, that the Bill of Rights allows women the right to “opt out” of customary practices, and that political parties will be legalised.

Civil society groups, in turn, are uneasy that the draft leaves the powers of the executive unchecked, limits public participation in governance, and is unclear about the status of constitutional law, relative to Swazi law and custom.

The Constitution in its present form is also at odds with four key international human rights treaties, ratified by the government between March and June this year. It does not outlaw torture and cruel punishment, eliminate discrimination against women, protect civil and political rights, and include economic, social and cultural rights. Amnesty also observes that the draft allows wide scope for subsidiary laws or for state organs to restrict these rights in an arbitrary manner.

The Swazi High Commissioner in South Africa was not available for comment.