Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network and Pan- Africa Human Rights Defenders Network together with our sub-regional partners join the rest of the mother continent and her peoples to celebrate the 57th anniversary of Africa Day. We take this historic opportunity to remind our leaders that “silencing the gun” and defeating COVID-19 are not just mutually reinforcing objectives but are critical enablers of creating an inclusive and prosperous Africa, which is anchored on sustainable peace, justice, equality, human dignity and equal
opportunities for all.
SADC: RESTRICTIVE COVID-19 REGULATIONS PRESENTING CONCERNING RAMIFICATIONS FOR ENJOYMENT OF HUMAN RIGHTS, INCLUDING LIVELIHOODS
We, the undersigned organizations, are writing this letter to bring to your attention the worrying restrictive COVID-19 regulations presenting concerning ramifications for enjoyment of human rights, including livelihoods.
As the international community strives to combat the spread of COVID-19, a number of states in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) have adopted varied measures that have concerning ramifications for the enjoyment of human rights, including livelihoods for people in the informal economy. States have, in some instances adopted declarations of states of emergency and [others declared] states of disaster or other measures that limit the exercise of certain human rights. While some states have begun gradually relaxing these regulations, the business environment remains restrictive and this means that millions of people within SADC, especially those who are in the informal economy, cannot work, with the poor mostly affected. While the challenges presented by COVID-19 are enormous and compel States to employ unprecedented measures to protect populations from this global pandemic, it is important all measures comply with applicable international human rights standards. Human rights must be at the centre of all prevention, preparedness, containment and treatment efforts, in order to best protect public health and support the groups and people who are most at risk.
Legal measures in response to COVID-19
In southern Africa, several countries have declared states of emergency or taken exceptional measures to curb the spread of COVID-19. Those that have declared states of emergency include, Angola, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique and Namibia. These are of varying periods and it is concerning that unduly prolonged periods or extensions of state of emergency have been declared in some countries where parliamentary oversight is not guaranteed without providing reasons to justify the length. Only Botswana and Namibia have subjected the declarations to parliamentary oversight. States of emergency must be limited to the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation, “relating to the duration, geographical coverage and material scope, and any measures of derogation resorted to because of the emergency.
All relevant safeguards under international law must be adhered to, including the official proclamation of the state of emergency and its international notification with full information about the measures taken and a clear explanation of the reasons for them; that it must be temporary and subject to periodic and genuine review before any extension; and to narrow down any derogations of human rights to those for which this is actually allowed under international law, and strictly necessary in the situation. The undersigned organization are concerned that this may lead to human rights violations, including related to freedom of movement and livelihoods. While States can derogate from certain freedoms and rights during a state of emergency, they cannot derogate from certain rights including the right to life; the prohibition from torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment medical or scientific experimentation without free consent; freedom from slavery or involuntary servitude; imprisonment for failing to fulfil a contractual obligation; equal recognition before the law; and freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
The states of emergency and the measures taken under then must not become a “new normal”. States must lift all emergency measures as soon as it is no longer warranted by the pandemic-related emergency and ensure that related restrictions or derogations of human rights do not become permanent.
Excessive use of force to enforce COVID-19 response measures
Across the SADC region, governments have deployed security forces to enforce compliance with COVID-19 response measures. Coercive enforcement approaches contradict evidence-based public health best practice, and often target disadvantaged communities which are marginalized, impoverished or at risk of discrimination resulting in stigma, fear and thwarting trust in authorities.
The imposition of penalties as enforcement measures must be the last resort after other alternatives have proven unsuccessful or if it becomes clear that the objective cannot be achieved by those other means. Sufficient steps need to have been taken to make sure the public is aware of the reasons for the restrictions and the need to comply with them. States must also put in place measures for people to be able to comply with the restrictions, including by enabling them to satisfy their essential needs, and take into account the situation of marginalised groups who may require support in order to be in a position to comply with the restrictions. In some cases, security personnel have used excessive force against people allegedly breaching such measures, including beating and humiliating them in public. Police have been accused of entering people’s homes and assaulting them. In some cases, government officials are reported to have encouraged use of force.
In Zambia, Lusaka Province Minister Bowman Lusambo was reported to have threatened people with whipping if they did not respect the Presidential Directive to stay home, while police have been beating people with baton sticks on the streets. National police spokesperson Esther Katongo said in a television interview that police in Zambia had adopted a strategy to “hit and detain” anyone found on the streets. Police have been documented beating people with baton sticks on the streets. In Zimbabwe, police officers raided a vegetable market forcing more than 300 vendors to flee and leave behind their produce. Police carried out the raid despite the agriculture sector being flagged as an “essential service” during the 21-day lockdown. They later disposed of the food, and vendors are yet to be compensated.
In Mauritius, police officers are under investigation for torture following reports of police brutality while enforcing the lockdown. In Mozambique, a local television station has accused police of taking advantage of the lockdown to raid vendors’ shops and steal their goods. In South Africa, there are reports of abuse, heavy-handed policing and the use of excessive force by the police and military.
Legality of new legislation on surveillance
While legislative initiatives are critical to the fight against COVID-19, in some cases there are concerns about their legality and susceptibility to abuse during and after the pandemic is contained. Some states are using increasing and different forms of surveillance, including those aimed at movement tracking, contact tracing, and the creation of “health apps”. To date, only South Africa has put in place surveillance specific legislation. On 2 March 2020, South Africa issued revised regulations, which mandate various entities to provide the Director General of the Department of Health with personal information of persons for inclusion in the COVID 19 contact-tracing database. This includes persons who have tested positive for COVID-19 or persons that have come into contact with those confirmed or suspected to be infected.
In addition, the Director General of the Department of Health may direct an electronic communications service provider to furnish the location or movements of any person known or reasonably suspected to have contracted COVID-19, and the location or movements of any person known or reasonably suspected to have come into contact with such a person.
While efforts to combat the spread of COVID-19 may necessitate innovative approaches, surveillance laws or regulations can and have been used to violate citizens’ rights to privacy. Increased surveillance measures will only be lawful if they can meet strict criteria. Governments must be able to show that measures implemented are provided for by law and are necessary, proportionate, time-bound, and that they are implemented with transparency and adequate oversight. In promulgating the regulations, the South African government has rightly included safeguards to minimise threats of breaches to the right to privacy and other fundamental rights and freedoms. Such measures include the appointment of a designated COVID-19 Judge to provide oversight over the implementation of the regulations and provide recommendations to the government to address any real or possible breaches of citizens’ rights.
In addition, the gathering of the surveillance information is led by health authorities and not state security authorities who might use it for other purposes including policing. Similarly, the lead role by health authorities provides a level of protection to individuals such as human rights defenders who are often the subject of surveillance by state security authorities. Importantly, the regulations state that the data collected will only be used for the purposes of controlling COVID-19, and will be destroyed or anonymised after the state of disaster terminates. Moreover, the concerned individuals will be informed if they were subjects of surveillance during the state of disaster.
Persons deprived of liberty
The conditions of prisons and prisoners in many African countries are afflicted by severe inadequacies including high congestion, poor physical, health, and sanitary conditions, as a result special attention needs to be drawn to the severe risk these conditions pose to the spread of COVID-19. Urgent and holistic preventive measures are required that focus on the most marginalized groups in our society, particularly prisoners. If COVID-19 penetrates prison systems in the sub-region, this will not only rapidly contribute to infections, but it risks high prison mortality rates. Authorities must ensure prompt and regular access to medical attention and adequate health care for people who are deprived of their liberty at a standard that meets each person’s individual needs and is similar to what is available in the community. Prison health is public health and, therefore, effective COVID-19 responses should address the risk that congestion poses to both the prison population and the broader community. In order to de-congest prisons, governments in the sub-region should adopt an urgent strategy for the protection of the rights of people deprived of their liberty, including through addressing overcrowding in prisons, through the immediate and unconditional release of prisoners of conscience; reviewing decisions to retain people in pre-trial detention as well as to detain children; considering the early, temporary or conditional release of those convicted of minor offences and people at higher risk, such as older people, pregnant women and those with underlying medical conditions; and adopting alternatives to detention. Efforts should be made to release older detainees if they no longer pose a threat to public safety and they have already served a portion of their prison sentence.
In addition, those convicted of minor offences should also be considered for release. Individuals arrested on immigration-related charges should not be detained in prisons. Judicial institutions should be provided with the necessary support and mandate to enable them to consider release of prisoners, especially those who have spent excessively long periods in detention pending judgment or sentencing. Judiciaries should also pay specific attention to the release on bail of older persons, persons who are chronically ill and whose state of health is exacerbated by prison conditions. Equally, special attention should be paid to children in prison and reformatory centers and women who are pregnant or remanded with their children. Importantly, on 25 March, the UN Committee on the Prevention of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment also called on governments to reduce prison populations wherever possible by implementing schemes of early, provisional or temporary release.
The COVID-19 pandemic has heightened the risk and exposure of women and girls to sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). Confinement due to stay-at-home orders or lockdowns has increased the risk of women and girls to domestic, sexual, economic, psychological and other forms of gender-based violence by abusive partners and family members. Poor housing and poverty in most countries of the sub-region exacerbate this phenomenon. Increasingly, hotlines in the sub-region have been inundated with calls from women reporting abuse and seeking assistance.
In South Africa, the Department of Social Development’s Gender-Based Violence Command Centre received about 2,300 complaints in the first four days after the lockdown came into effect. Accessing help can also be difficult due to confinement with the abuser. It is, therefore, imperative that States adopt innovative ways in exercising their due diligence obligation to prevent and protect women and girls from SGBV during the pandemic. States must ensure that prevention of and protection from gender-based violence and domestic violence is an integral part of their national response to the pandemic.
The unique challenges that COVID-19 presents to addressing SGBV due to confinement require bold responses from States including re-prioritizing access to support and protection services, helplines and shelters for survivors States should also ensure that women, girls and people who can get pregnant can access sexual and reproductive health services, especially ones that are time-sensitive such as emergency contraception, pre-natal testing and counselling, abortion, post-abortion care and miscarriage treatment as well as the prevention and treatment of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.
Victimization of human rights defenders
COVID-19 has increased threats to civic space and human rights defenders. Some of the emergency measures to combat the novel coronavirus have severely restricted the civic space and led to violations of human rights, including targeted attacks on human rights defenders. The rampant arrests and detention of grassroots human rights defenders across Africa including Southern Africa as well as journalists and those involved in trying to disseminate information resulted in the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders and Focal Point on Reprisals in Africa, Honourable Commissioner Rémy Ngoy Lumbu, expressing concern in a statement on 12 May 2020. For example, in Malawi human rights defenders were forced to institute what we refer to as firewall public interest litigation to stop the imposition of lockdown measures that would pose a threat of generalised harm to women vendors and informal traders and grassroots defenders including police brutality and detentions.
In Eswatini police reportedly harassed Swaziland news editor, Zweli Martin Dlamini’s wife and children for spreading “fake news,” that suggested that King Mswati III had contracted the coronavirus, insisting that the King “is well and in good health.” In Zimbabwe, President Mnangagwa has indefinitely extended the lockdown. And three young women political leaders from the Movement for Democratic Change – Alliance, Cecilia Revai Chimbiri, Netsai Marova and Joana Ruvimbo Mamombe, a Member of Parliament were abducted, tortured and sexually abused after having participated in a flash protest against rising levels of hunger and abuse of government sourced food aid during the lockdown. In addition, a freelance journalist, James Jemwa was temporarily detained by soldiers and police officers and forced to delete the footage he had recorded at Gwenyambira shops, Harare. The Zimbabwe police Commissioner went on to say that journalists should stay at home and be bound by national lockdown regulations, arguing that they are not providers of an essential service and claiming that only journalists from “broadcasting services” (usually government controlled) are exempted. Opposition officials were also arrested and fined for providing food relief to the poor and hungry in Mutare notably Regai Tsunga a member of Parliamnet for Mutasa South.
In Malawi threats have been made against the chairperson of Malawi Human Rights Defenders Coalition Mr Gift Trapence before he was later involved in a serious accident. In Zambia on 9 April 2020the government controlled Independent Broadcasting Agency cancelled the broadcasting/television license of the popular Prime Television Station citing “public interest … safety, security, peace, welfare and good order” as the reason for such action. Civil society see this conduct as part of the wider government policy of systematically closing civic space ahead of the 2021 elections.
Rather than resort to intimidation, states should provide human rights defenders on the frontline of the pandemic with the necessary information, tools and protective equipment they need to carry out their human rights activities in safety.
While noting the enormous social, economic and other challenges presented by COVID-19, the respect for human rights is key in ensuring that responses are humane and do not negatively impact on people’s lives and livelihoods. We therefore call on States in southern Africa to:
- Ensure that declarations of states of emergency respect international human rights law, particularly to the provisions of article 4 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, including (i) notifying the Secretary General of the United Nations of the rights derogated: (ii) ensuring institutional oversight to curb abuse of emergency powers; (iii) undertake regular reviews to assess if emergency powers are no longer required in the circumstances;
- Ensure that only permissible limitations under international human rights law are imposed if they decide to restrict the rights and freedoms of individuals during the COVID-19 pandemic;
- Take appropriate measures to prevent the excessive use of force by security and other personnel in the enforcement of COVID-19 measures including by ensuring that regulations establish clearly circumscribed responsibilities and tasks for law enforcement officials, avoiding overly broad discretion that may lead to arbitrary or otherwise excessive use of police powers. and that those responsible should be held accountable and sanctioned with commensurate penalties;
- Avoid responding to the COVID-19 pandemic with increased digital surveillance, unless these measures meet strict criteria. States must ensure that any surveillance regulations adopted to curb the spread of COVID-19 contain appropriate legal safeguards to protect citizens’ rights to privacy and other rights; and that such measures should not be used to gather any information un related to the containment of COVID-19 and to crash dissent or surveil the activities of human rights defenders; Measures implemented are provided for by law and are necessary, proportionate, non-discriminatory, time-bound, and that they are implemented with transparency and adequate oversight; And that such data are not used for any other purpose, that collection is limited to the minimum possible and is securely stored and subject to mandatory, time-bound deletion;
- Take urgent steps to de-congest places of deprivation of liberty to protect prison populations and communities from COVID-19 by taking urgent action to protect people in detention from COVID-19, including guaranteeing access to healthcare and sanitation products in all facilities and releasing prisoners of conscience and others in arbitrary detention, reviewing cases of pre-trial detention, and considering release for children, women and girls who are in detention with their dependent children or who are pregnant, and other prisoners specifically at risk, such as older prisoners or those with underlying medical conditions.
- Urge the Government of Zimbabwe to conduct a swift, thorough and credible investigation into the abduction, torture and sexual assault of opposition Member of Parliament Joana Ruvimbo Mamombe, along with Cecilia Revai Chimbiri and Netsai Marova. We expect justice and accountability on this egregious and heinous violation of human rights.
States must ensure that women survivors continue to have access to police protection and justice as well as to shelters, helplines, community-support services, including by designating these as essential services and ensuring they receive the necessary support and resources to continue operating during the pandemic. Sufficient resources must be available to scale up services when necessary and provide information about their availability while also responding to the specific challenges and needs of certain groups of women and girls such as migrant and refugee women, minority and Indigenous women, LGBTI women, women experiencing discrimination based on work and descent, and women living in poverty.
Advancing Rights in Southern Africa (ARISA)
Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network (SAHRDN)
Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC)
Tanzania: Joint CSO letter to Tanzanian President to de-congest prisons and protect rights of detainees
President John Pombe Magufuli United Republic of Tanzania Dar es Salaam Tanzania
May 20, 2020
Re: Immediate and urgent measures to protect the rights of prison detainees in Tanzania
We the undersigned non-governmental human rights organizations, welcome your government’s measures to halt the spread of COVID-19, including closing schools, discouraging public gatherings, informing the public, and establishing three Cabinet committees to lead the response.
We particularly welcome recent steps to decongest Tanzania’s prisons, where 3,717 prisoners were pardoned in line with recommendations by the World Health Organization (WHO). However, we believe it does not go far enough to alleviate the risk to Tanzania’s prison population and the community at large. Tanzania’s prison conditions make it practically impossible to maintain social-distancing for all detainees and self-isolation for those possibly, or are, infected. Also at risk are prison staff, medical and food service providers, their families, and the communities they interact with. Like many of Tanzania’s regional counterparts, places of detention are overcrowded, have limited access to healthcare, and face hygiene challenges. The WHO has warned that “people deprived of their liberty, and those living or working in enclosed environments in their close proximity, are likely to be more vulnerable to the COVID-19 disease than the general population.” In order to implement strict social distancing, Tanzania’s prison population must be reduced such that the general prison population can maintain at least one meter or greater distance in all directions at all times, in line with current guidelines. In addition, facilities must have enough space to self-isolate those who are ill or have come into contact with infected persons.
On several occasions, your Excellency has noted with concern the overpopulation of Tanzania’s prisons. More than half of the country’s detainees are awaiting trial, many of whom have been detained for years. Effective measures to decongest the country’s prisons need to include releasing many members of this group. As other countries’ experiences show, the failure to take measures to decongest prisons can lead to
prison riots. In response to COVID-19 and the threat to prison populations, neighboring countries like Uganda, in addition to pardoning certain convicted persons, have undertaken to urgently review cases of pre-trial detainees. In Kenya, by fast-tracking hearings through video conferencing, courts were able to release over 5,000 prisoners, including “remandees”. Given the rising numbers of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Tanzania, extraordinary measures are required.
We, therefore, call on you to prevail on the relevant authorities to urgently review cases of those in pre-trial detention, including individuals detained on non-bailable offenses and those whose cases are still at the investigation stage.8 Further, the authorities should refrain from custodial arrests for low- level offenses that do not involve the infliction or threat of infliction of serious bodily injury, sexual assault, or a known likelihood of physical harm. Where the arrest and detention of a person is unavoidable, screening measures must be put in place to prevent the infection of persons in detention as well as members of the police.
While taking immediate measures to decongest the prisons and detention centers as recommended above, we urge your government to ensure that facilities continue to adhere to the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (Nelson Mandela Rules). Authorities have directed the lockdown of detention facilities to limit interaction with the outside population. This means prisoners are no longer allowed public visitors, including family members and their legal representatives. Restricting lawyers from meeting their clients jeopardizes the fundamental right to legal representation. Furthermore, the complete isolation of prisoners from friends and family may have an impact on the mental well-being of detainees.
We recommend that Tanzania implement alternative measures, such as video conferencing, allow increased phone calls with family and legal representatives, and permit email and communication at a distance or behind glass partitions.
Currently, while measures are in place for courts to continue to hear some criminal matters through video conferencing, there has been no publicized directive or collaboration between the offices of the Prosecutor General, the Judiciary, or the legal profession to prioritize reducing the number of detainees, particularly those in pre-trial detention. The failure to further decongest prisons, coupled with the restrictions of legal counsel and family visits as detailed above, could aggravate what is already a tense, difficult and potentially dangerous situation.
We therefore respectfully urge that you consult with relevant stakeholders, including the Honourable Minister of Health, the Commissioner-General of Prisons, the Honourable Chief Justice, the Director of Public Prosecutions, the Inspector General of Prisons, the Tanganyika Law Society, and other civil society organizations, to put in place a comprehensive COVID-19 plan of action to decongest Tanzania’s prisons. These bodies should agree on a plan to do this, which should be shared with all involved, including prison staff, inmates, and the general public, to minimize unnecessary fear and anxiety.
The Tanzanian government has an obligation to ensure the right to health for everyone under its jurisdiction. Article 16 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, to which Tanzania is a state party, provides: “Every individual shall have the right to enjoy the best attainable state of physical and mental health.” This right, in accordance with the 1995 African Commission Resolution on Prisons in Africa, is extended to prisoners, detainees, and other persons deprived of their liberty.
In light of the above, the undersigned organizations respectfully recommend that the government of Tanzania urgently take the following measures:
- Review of cases that could lead to the release of detainees. Courts should continue to hold all critical hearings, including bail hearings and habeas corpus petition hearings. The prosecution should agree to conditional or unconditional release options unless individuals are accused of a serious offense and their release would pose a specific and known risk of harm to others or they are a known flight risk. Pending cases not previously scheduled for hearing can be expedited to facilitate the early disposition of the case;
- During this COVID-19 period, authorities should refrain from arresting people for crimes that do not involve serious offenses, and then only arrest if the person would pose a specific and known risk of harm to others, issuing citations instead;
- Prisoners who do not meet the criteria for conditional or unconditional release should not be isolated from legal counsel or relatives. Any restrictions on the rights of people deprived of their liberty, including on visitations, should be strictly necessary and proportionate to the health emergency. The government should implement alternatives for prisoners to consult privately with legal counsel, during court proceedings, and within prison facilities. Prisoners must also be allowed contact with their relatives, taking into account social-distancing measures. This can include providing free and adequate access to a telephone, internet, video communication, and other appropriate electronic means, as well as measures to safely receive food and other supplies.
- Ensure that all detention facilities are equipped with sufficient and functioning sanitizing equipment and/or other relevant facilities for physical hygiene and that all detainees are regularly
provided (free of charge) with adequate quantities of soap, sanitizing items and access to clean running water.
Thank you for your attention to this critical matter, which bears on the health and well-being of all Tanzanians. We would be happy to talk by phone with officials involved in addressing these issues.
- Amnesty International
- Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition (Zimbabwe)
- Anti-Corruption Trust of Southern Africa (ACT-SA) (Zambia)
- CIVICUS. (South Africa)
- Counselling Services Unit (CSU) (Zimbabwe)
- Crime prevention, Rehabilitation and Reintegration of ex-prisoners (CRROA). (Lesotho)
- EG Justice
- Friends of Angola (FoA) (Angola)
- Human Rights Institute of South Africa (HURISA) (South Africa)
- Human Rights Watch
- Institute for Public Policy Analysis and Implementation (IPPAI.) (Zimbabwe)
- Lawyers for Human Rights. (LHR) (South Africa)
- Legal and Human Rights Centre (Tanzania)
- Malawi Network of Religious Leaders Living with or Personally Affected by HIV (MANERELA+). (Malawi)
- Oasis Network for Community Transformation.
- Robert F Kennedy Human Rights (RFK)
- Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network (SAHRDN)
- Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC) (South Africa)
- Southern Africa Network Against Corruption (SANAC). (Zambia)
- The Rock of Hope (South Africa)
The Honorable Chief Justice
The Honorable Minister of Constitutional and Legal Affairs
The Director of Public Prosecutions
The Commissioner General of Prisons
Issue No: 4 3 – 8 May 2020
The Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network and Maverick Citizen launched the Southern Africa Weekly Human Rights Roundup, aimed at highlighting important human rights news in Southern Africa. The Human Rights Roundup integrates efforts of human rights defenders and facilitates evidence-based engagement with key stakeholders, and institutions on the human rights situation across the region
Across southern Africa, lockdown measures have exposed grave inequalities in societies with a disproportionate impact on the poor and economically vulnerable. The precarious conditions in which millions of ordinary people – the unemployed, women vendors and informal traders – live without adequate food, clean drinking water, decent housing, and toilets and jobs has not only increased the risk for the spread of Covid-19 but increased the dangers of facing police brutality, given that many governments have deployed the army to help the police to enforce the lockdown measures.
Unfortunately, the lockdown orders have also thrown millions more people into extreme poverty without the ability to work on their usual hand-to-mouth jobs. The fragile nature of the majority of livelihoods and the absence of government measures such as social safety nets to cushion poor people has produced this unintended consequence. The stay-at-home orders were imposed on a population that can ill afford and was ill-prepared to stay at home. In the desperate attempt to save lives, livelihoods have been sacrificed. Increasingly, the Covid-19 lockdown measures are now translating for the poor into a simple question: how do you want to die, by Covid-19, by hunger and starvation or by possible police brutality? While physical distancing and good hygiene may be necessary and are good policies on paper, in reality, they are incompatible with the conditions in which most people live. The lockdown measures are now threatening malnutrition and starvation for millions of people.
Regrettably, except for South Africa, measures implemented so far to alleviate the economic damage have targeted the formal economy, neglecting the informal and communal economies where the majority of people, particularly women, are located. Authorities in the region have to a large extent failed to respond sufficiently to the region’s high level of poverty, unemployment, inequality and lack of social safety nets.
Such is the scale of concern about the impact of the Covid-19 measures on the poor that on 23 April 2020, the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights expressed concern: “about the precarious conditions … constituting a real risk for the spread of Covid-19”.
Over the years, the informal economy in southern Africa has grown to unprecedented levels. For those lucky to be employed, thousands of jobs are being lost every day as small-to-medium enterprises and some big companies are folding as a result of stagnant economic activity. As people lose jobs and income, with no way of knowing when normalcy will return, rowdy scenes of people scrambling for food have become the new norm.
The International Labour Organisation recently revealed that in the current situation, businesses across a range of economic sectors are facing catastrophic losses, which threaten their operations and solvency, especially among smaller enterprises, while millions of workers are vulnerable to income loss and layoffs. The impact on income-generating activities is especially harsh for unprotected workers and the most vulnerable groups in the informal economy.
The World Food Programme has already warned that the world is on the brink of a hunger pandemic. David Beasley, head of the WFP, reported that 135 million people are facing acute food shortages globally and that the coronavirus could increase this by another 130 million by year-end.
The world faces “multiple famines of biblical proportions” that could result in 300,000 deaths per day – a “hunger pandemic”, he said.
Recent estimates by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) indicate that a possible global GDP loss of 5% in 2020 could increase worldwide poverty levels by 20%, pushing another 147 million people into extreme poverty, and more than half of those at risk – 79 million people – are in sub-Saharan Africa.
Hunger pains grow across southern Africa
Zimbabwe, with an unemployment rate of over 90%, has the second-largest informal economy in the world after Bolivia. The country was already battling a severe socio-economic crisis spanning two decades.
Many have raised concern that measures to curb the Covid-19 will hit the most vulnerable people hard. The Zimbabwe National Chamber of Commerce (ZNCC) estimates that 25% of the country’s formal jobs and 75% of informal jobs are at risk from Covid-19 containment measures.
This comes in the wake of a report that was issued by the World Food Programme (WFP) in December 2019 advising that the country was facing its worst hunger crisis in 10 years with 7.7 million people food insecure. In a country where half the population was already struggling to eat daily, and maize prices rose by a third in February 2020, the situation is dire.
A significant population lives from hand to mouth, with limited access to basic needs such as food, water, clothing and shelter. Social services, particularly healthcare and education, are beyond the reach of many. Many rely on support from relatives, families and friends in the diaspora. Accessing Zimbabwe diaspora remittances has been a nightmare and is worsened by the non-availability of cash from outlets.
Parallel market money traders who operate the streets of Bulawayo, Harare and Mutare have reportedly resorted to working from home, as they cannot afford to abide by lockdown restrictions and because desperate customers are calling them.
Since the government introduced lockdown measures, many have lost their sources of income and now depend on food aid.
Newsday reported that close to 400 sex workers in Marondera were struggling to survive owing to lockdown restrictions, particularly physical distancing. Life Health Education Development director Primrose Fundai, whose organisation works with commercial sex workers, reported that sex workers have been greatly affected by the requirement to observe physical distancing. Some need to collect their medication for chronic conditions during this lockdown but they do not have written letters to permit them to travel.
The ruling Zanu-PF has been accused of using food to shore up support, especially in rural areas. The Zimbabwe NGO Forum reported that cases of partisan distribution of food aid are on the rise countrywide. In Sakubva, Mutare, community members reported that government food aid distribution in the area is being conducted on a political party partisan basis. On 12 April about 200 people were allegedly summoned by the Zanu-PF Manicaland Youth Assembly at Sakubva Beit Hall to draw up a list of food beneficiaries, deliberately excluding those who are not aligned to the party. Similar reports were recorded in Beitbridge, Matabeleland province.
The Zimbabwe Peace Project state in their monthly report that the government “announced it would disburse ZWL600-million to a million vulnerable households and the money (about ZWL200 per family (equivalent to $5 per month!) was to be disbursed through the Department of Social Welfare, which was to assess vulnerability and compile a list of deserving families”.
The government advised that 800,000 beneficiaries who would get support “were identified through the Econet platform”, while only 200,000 were identified by the Ministry of Social Welfare.
In an unusual turn of events, on 2 April 2020, Zimbabwe’s finance minister wrote to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other leading multilateral lenders, not only pleading for financial assistance but admitting to policy errors and pledging to address the issue of electoral reforms, among other issues previously raised by the international community, for the organisations to agree to reschedule the payment of arrears and allow Zimbabwe to access fresh finance that is needed for the creation of a social safety net.
Angola, reports of partisan distribution of food aid have emerged after the government announced relief measures to cover businesses, informal sector workers, and families affected by the current lockdown regimes. Distribution of rations such as maize, rice, pasta, sugar and cooking oil were rolled out after the government announced a nationwide relief of over $550,000 USD through the Ministry of Social Action, Family and Women’s Promotion.
Civil society organisations have raised concern about the lack of transparency in food distribution by the government relief assistance. Families in the Luanda and Benguela provinces have reportedly complained that they were not properly informed about who qualifies to receive food aid and how the government is deciding on who gets the relief in communities.
Mozambique. On 6 May, the Forum De Monitoria Do Orcamento (FMO) met with the IMF in light of the US 309 million emergency fund that was allocated to Mozambique to guarantee social protection and strengthen the capacity of the health sector to address the Covid-19 pandemic. FMO called on the IMF to incorporate principles of transparency and good governance in the management of the funds and ensure the involvement of civil society as an independent monitoring mechanism, given the history of corruption and diversion of government funds by the ruling elite with impunity.
Malawi, efforts to lock down by embattled President Peter Mutharika were suspended after High Court Judge Justice Kenyatta Nyirenda ruled against it. Malawi’s High Court temporarily halted the government’s 21-day lockdown pending a judicial review last week. The government was ordered to put in place necessary socio-economic protection measures to prevent harm to the poorest and most vulnerable of society.
In response, Malawi has reportedly introduced a US$51-million emergency cash programme to mitigate the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on vulnerable groups for the next six months from May to October. More than 172,000 households in the cities of Lilongwe, Blantyre, Mzuzu and Zomba are expected to benefit from the programme. Other measures include a reduction of fuel prices, waiver of fees and charges on electronic payments and a moratorium on bank loan repayments. Data shows that more than 70% of the country’s population live below the poverty datum line.
South Africa, ranked one of the most unequal countries in the world by the World Bank, had a 29% unemployment rate prior to the lockdown. Even among the employed, 18% – 3 million people – work in the informal sector.
According to Africa economist Boingotlo Gasealahwe, “South Africa implemented some of the most draconian containment measures in the world. This has come at a huge cost to the economy. Even though the most stringent containment measures are being eased, large parts of the economy will remain closed. This together with the limited direct fiscal policy support means that the economy will continue to hemorrhage. The cumulative damage will depend crucially on the length of lockdown.”
Food has become scarce, resulting in rampant looting of grocery shops and supermarkets in South Africa’s townships. On 16 April, IOL reported that 11 people had been arrested for burglary and looting of grocery stores on Cape Flats in Cape Town amid lockdown. News24 reported similar incidents where a Shoprite in Gatesville, Athlone, Cape Town was looted by 16 suspects who fled with tills, cash and groceries. In Manenberg, about 5km away, large crowds also took to the streets and broke into two wholesalers, “helping themselves to grocery items”.
On 29 April 2020 people were shocked when The Daily Telegraph broadcast a video of poor people queuing for food parcels – in Centurion – in winding queues of over 4km just to receive food that lasts less than two days. Various private businesses donated 8,000 food hampers which were distributed in the informal settlement of Mooiplaas in Centurion.
On 19 April City Press reported that incidents of corruption and food looting had been reported in eight provinces where there were claims that those in charge of the distributions – mostly African National Congress (ANC) councillors – were not giving the food to the families that were most in need. The councillors were accused of nepotism and unfair discrimination when distributing food parcels and other Covid-19 related essentials in North West, Mpumalanga, Limpopo, Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, Eastern Cape and Northern Cape.
The allegations of partisan distribution of food according to political party affiliation was a phenomenon reported across the whole southern Africa region, prompting Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International Director for East and Southern Africa, to warn that “the distribution of food aid along party political lines is completely unacceptable and it is undermining the protection measures that governments have committed to implement to uphold the right to food for everyone”.
Access to water
The WHO has advised and southern African countries have reaffirmed that thorough handwashing with soap and water is a key component in combating the Covid-19 pandemic.
However, in Harare alone, one million people have no access to water, a basic human right. Crowds of more than 50 people are seen gathered at community boreholes and water points to fetch water.
Further, crowds continue to mass at markets, shops and water points in Luanda, Angola, despite lockdown, arguing that “it is better to die of this disease or a gunshot than to starve to death”, evidence that physical distancing as a measure is near impossible in relation to people’s daily struggles. While expected to stay at home, people are forced to defy lockdown regulations owing to erratic supply of water.
Covid-19, migrants and asylum seekers
Undocumented migrants and asylum seekers constitute one severely vulnerable group in southern Africa facing severe hunger and starvation as a result of the lockdown measures.
South Africa is home to millions of undocumented immigrants mainly from Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. They are neither eligible for any government assistance, nor can they access trading permits during lockdown, despite many of them being extremely vulnerable and food insecure.
In April, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) called on the government of South Africa to guard against laws, policies and public statements that discriminate against non-citizens, especially during the public health emergency caused by Covid-19. ICJ added: “Lockdown regulations and directions must be conceived and implemented in a way that fully enables all migrant workers performing essential services, including informal traders, waste reclaimers and shop owners to operate on an equal basis with South African citizens.”
Status of lockdowns in Southern Africa: While most countries in the region have continued to extend lockdowns by an average of two weeks, lockdown restrictions are now being systematically relaxed in response to the devastating impact on their economies rather than as a response to declining infections.
- On 1 May, South Africa entered stage 4 of lockdown, allowing the phased reopening of some businesses and industries under strictly monitored precautions.
- The President of Namibia announced that the country would gradually reopen from 5 May as the country moves to stage 2. The six-month state of emergency will remain in force subject to the obtaining situation in the country.
- Zimbabwe extended its lockdown by two weeks from 4 May, while gradually easing restrictions in what it called stage 2. Restrictions on mining companies and agricultural and food producers were relaxed in a bid to revive the economy.
- Botswana extended its lockdown by a week, until 7 May, ahead of a gradual easing of restrictions over a two-week period.
Despite being urged by the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights to put human rights at the center of their fight against the pandemic, it is apparent that southern African governments did not have a strategy to prevent the health pandemic from becoming the humanitarian crisis that it has become. They locked down and hoped for the best. The level of disaster unpreparedness in most countries highlights the extreme vulnerability of southern Africa if infections worsen as is predicted by the WHO. Given how strong economies with developed health systems have suffered across the globe, it is unimaginable what this plague could still do to southern Africa if the infection rates pick up. Such is the scale of the impact of Covid-19 measures on poor people that a warning of a severe reduction in the lifespan of South Africans has been predicted by a professional group of actuaries who felt compelled to write to President Ramaphosa encouraging him to change strategy.
The question is, is Ramaphosa, or any other of the political leaders across southern Africa, listening?
Time will tell.
Arnold Tsunga is a human rights lawyer, the director of the Africa Regional Programme of the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), and the Technical and Strategy Advisor of the SAHRDN. Tatenda Mazarura is a Woman Human Rights Defender (WHRD), a professional rapporteur, and an election expert. Mark Heywood is editor of Maverick Citizen.
Lilongwe and Johannesburg 09 May 2020
SAHRDN welcomes Malawi’s Supreme Court of Appeal ruling and calls on the authorities in Malawi and SADC to sincerely guarantee a peaceful and credible fresh presidential election in Malawi.
The Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network (SAHRDN or the Defenders Network) welcomes the ruling by the Malawi Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) to uphold the ruling by the Constitutional Court on February 3, 2020 to nullify the May 21, 2019 presidential election and order a fresh presidential election within 150 days, including weekends and holidays from the day of the ruling. Malawi has set a democratic precedent in a voter-centric ruling, which gave a new impetus to the imperative of the separation of power as a cardinal principle in a democratic society, and the will of the voters as the flywheel of a democratic and credible electoral process.
While the SAHRDN welcomes the SCA ruling, it is however disturbed by the incidents of politically motivated violence, which has unfortunately claimed two lives so far and the threats of targeted political assassinations as widely reported in the media. The SAHRDN, therefore calls for a peaceful, free, fair, and credible election, which guarantees, at the minimum; the security of the voter; security of the vote; and security of the candidates. The SAHRDN acknowledges that the hallmark of a credibly free and fair election is marked by “procedural certainty” in terms of the rules of the electoral game, and equally important, “outcome uncertainty”, – that there should be a no predetermined winner.
The SAHRDN reminds all the contesting candidates that the primary focus of a democratic contest should be “on the will to transform people’s lives, and not “on the will to power at any cost”, -including walking over dead bodies to the State House, and – ruling over a divided, bitter and broken society. This, just like any other democratic poll should be a “let live” election not a “let die” election, where intimation, violence and political assassinations are instruments of choice to “harvest fear” on the election day. The SAHRDN abhors an election where the voters will not have to make a choice between contesting candidates but to be coerced to vote for peace or violence, death or life.
The authorities in Malawi should demonstrate political goodwill, respect for human rights and put in place mechanisms to ensure a peaceful electoral competition with zero tolerance to and no room for the “margin of terror” and enhance the integrity and quality of the election to significantly reduce the “margin of error”. A disputed election is a seedbed of more violence and a threat to regional peace, security, and stability.
In light of the foregoing;
- The SAHRDN calls upon SADC, AU, UN and the International Community writ large to deploy qualified and experienced election observers without further delay.
- The SAHRDN urges all political parties/alliances, and candidates to commit to a Code of Conduct which makes respective political parties, candidates and individuals accountable for any acts of violence and violation of human rights and other fundamentals.
- The SAHRDN calls on the security forces, the parliament, the judiciary, the media and the human rights defenders, in particular, Malawi’s Human Rights Defenders Coalition to continue defending the Malawian constitution and protect the citizens of Malawi, -including female and male civic space and human rights defenders and people living with albinism.
- The SAHRDN also calls upon President Arthur Peter Mutharika and the Malawi Electoral Commission to implement all key reforms recommended by the Constitutional Court and upheld by the Supreme Court of Appeals to ensure a free, fair and credible electoral process, – with an undisputed outcome even during the COVID-19 global pandemic.
- The SAHRDN encourages all the key stakeholders, domestic, regional and international, to spearhead an inclusive, sustainable and gender-sensitive Vote in Peace (VIP) “in an election with choice” campaign.
- The SAHRDNs also calls for an all stakeholderselectoral risk/integrity assessment to effectively mitigate against current and potential incidents of electoral fraud, electoral malpractice, systemic manipulation and electoral violence among other electoral malfeasances. Malawi should set a “gold standard” for the conduct of a credibly democratic election in the region, and the world at large.
- In conclusion, the SAHRDN reminds the authorities in Malawi of its obligations and urges them to observe and respect their own constitution, and respect the international and regional statutes, treaties, protocols they are part too, including but not limited to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, the Africa Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance, the SADC Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections, and the Maputo Protocol.
“Standing with HRDs during elections in the COVID-19 global crisis”
For more information please contact Washington Katema, Regional Programmes Manager at email@example.com or +27 73 620 2608
Issue 3, 26– 1 May 2020
The Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network and Maverick Citizen launched the Southern Africa Weekly Human Rights Roundup, aimed at highlighting important human rights news in Southern Africa. The Human Rights Roundup integrates efforts of human rights defenders and facilitates evidence-based engagement with key stakeholders, and institutions on the human rights situation across the region.
This week we examine how southern African countries are responding to the dual paradoxical objectives of ensuring that measures to protect people from Covid-19 do not negatively affect human rights and the strengthening of democracy.
The number of Covid-19 cases continues to grow in southern Africa, threatening scheduled elections and democratic processes.
However, in the words of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, on 27 April, emergency powers invoked to fight Covid-19 “should not be a weapon governments can wield to quash dissent, control the population, and even perpetuate their time in power”.
As a recent article in Maverick Citizen explains, the UN has reiterated time and time again that respect for all human rights — economic, social, civil and political — is fundamental to the success of the fight against Covid-19.
Nonetheless, the chorus of complaints about how Covid-19 measures are deliberately being made repressive by some governments in southern Africa — to produce political outcomes as opposed to public health outcomes — is increasing in volume.
With Covid-19 hanging over their heads, African governments are faced with a difficult choice: to go ahead with scheduled elections and risk accelerating infections or to postpone and compromise their democracy, including by creating potential leadership legitimacy crises.
Some countries, such as South Africa and Zimbabwe, have already suspended political activity and elections due to fears of spreading the virus. Others like Malawi and Zambia appear to be proceeding with elections as planned or as ordered by the court while implementing measures that have the effect of limiting the enjoyment of fundamental rights in a way that affects the potential freeness and fairness of the polls.
Concerns about preparedness from election authorities and political parties have also been considered.
The African Union’s governance instruments affirm that “regular elections constitute a key element of the democratisation process and, therefore, are essential ingredients for good governance, the rule of law, the maintenance and promotion of peace, security, stability and development”.
It is therefore important to prevent Covid-19 from not just killing people but also from killing electoral democracy.
On 19 March, South Africa’s Electoral Court granted an urgent application by the Electoral Commission to postpone all municipal by-elections and associated voter registration activities that were originally scheduled for March-May 2020.
On 26 March, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission announced that all by-elections and other electoral activities had been suspended until further notice as part of precautionary measures to protect its employees and the general public from the pandemic.
In Malawi elections ordered by the court are around the corner, in July. The impact of Covid-19 on this vote has been topical in the past month. The general view is that adequate logistical preparation for the election in important key result areas would be difficult within the timeframe. These include procurement of voting materials, recruitment and training of election officials and enabling administrative processes such as voter registration and setting up of election management infrastructure in constituencies.
Voting procedures would have to be adjusted to comply with lockdown regulations.
Altogether it is a mammoth logistical undertaking that requires additional resources, both material and financial, that Malawi does not have. As political analyst Taona Mwanyisa argues, if Malawi goes ahead with the election amid the pandemic there will be serious hurdles to overcome.
The opposition has expressed the worry that President Peter Mutharika is going to use the pandemic to delay the election and cling on to power.
Malawi is in a difficult situation because the election dates are part of a court order. Any postponement could have far-reaching implications on the health of democracy at a time when there are already significant questions about the legitimacy of Mutharika remaining in power when his term expired.
He has remained in office merely because of technical aspects of the law that will not allow a vacuum at State House. Questions have been raised about the extent of his powers, given that he is in office but unelected.
The AU governance instruments are clear that “democratic elections are the basis of the authority of any representative government”.
Such is the extent of the impact of Covid-19 on electoral contestation in Malawi that efforts by Mutharika’s government to impose lockdown conditions have been widely rejected by the population, resulting in protests and court challenges.
Law enforcement agencies have threatened to use force to ensure compliance with lockdown.
Threats in 2021
Southern African elections scheduled for next year could also be affected.
Information on whether Zambia will proceed with its 2021 poll remains sketchy. The country is set to conduct its first ever-electronic population census in August this year. But even that has not been officially announced.
Ominous signs that authorities in Zambia are using Covid-19 measures to clamp down on enjoyment of fundamental rights are showing. There have been several reports of police brutality to enforce regulations. The Minister for Lusaka threatened to whip the spokesperson of the Human Rights Commission after he condemned police for whipping people for allegedly violating rules.
Leading lawyer John Sangwa has been disbarred administratively from practicing for opposing a parliamentary Bill centralising executive power and removing effective separation of powers.
Independent television station Prime Television has been forcibly closed under the guise of protecting public interest and public safety. Restrictions to civic space — oxygen for citizen voices — prevent activists from drawing attention to human rights emergencies and risk creating a wider human rights crisis.
That, after all, is the lesson of China’s suppression of doctors who tried to warn about Covid-19 in early January.
Allegations of weaponisation of the law to restrict civic space and attack human rights activists and institutions — often described as “judicial persecution” or “persecution through prosecution” — keep arising in Zambia.
In Lesotho, where embattled Prime Minister Thomas Thabane is under pressure to resign, fresh elections can happen at any time.
Police Commissioner Holomo Molibeli has raised serious allegations that there were plans to have him killed but was “a free man only because Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) commander Lieutenant General Mojalefa Letsoela defied orders to arrest him” during the army’s deployment by the prime minister on Saturday 25 April.
The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) raises concern that, while there may be broad political consensus regarding the postponement of elections, the legal basis for such postponement and the modality of governance between the end of term of the current parliament and new elections have raised political and constitutional contestations.
Many constitutions are silent on what should happen if elections fail to take place for one reason or another.
Notwithstanding the devastating effects of Covid-19, the pandemic presents an opportunity for election authorities and legislators in southern Africa to better organise themselves and put in place measures and plan Bs that ensure their citizens are able to exercise their franchise to vote at any given time. We, therefore, agree with Thomas White that “while these measures may mitigate the spread of coronavirus in the short term, they do create another risk that Covid-19 will be used as a smokescreen to rationalise attacks on democracy”.
Status of lockdowns in southern Africa
Southern African countries have continued operating under lockdown conditions with minimum or no cross-border travel.
As South Africa entered its final week of a 35-day lockdown, the government announced it would gradually ease the restrictions in five stages from 30 April, citing economic concerns. President Cyril Ramaphosa authorised the deployment of an additional 73,180 soldiers to help police enforce lockdown regulations until June, raising concerns in civil society about possible abuses, some calling it “a strategic blunder against an invincible enemy”.
Zimbabwe and Namibia have also remained under strict lockdowns that are scheduled to end on 3 and 4 May respectively. On 21 April, Lesotho extended a 21-day national lockdown by another 14 days despite not having recorded any cases. On 22 April, Eswatini reversed a decision to relax coronavirus restrictions after infections almost doubled to 31 in one week. During April, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the World Health Organisation director-general, laid out six criteria that should guide countries as they consider lifting restrictions.
These include but are not limited to ensuring that transmission is controlled, health systems capacities are in place to test, isolate, treat every case and trace every contact, and that communities are fully educated, engaged and empowered to adjust to the new norm.
Lockdowns and police brutality
Civil society continues recording cases of torture, arbitrary arrest and murder of citizens by law enforcement agencies in all countries.
Police and soldiers in South Africa are accused of assaulting people they allege were breaching lockdown regulations. In one incident, riot police went as far as to fire rubber bullets at nurses protesting shortages in personal protective equipment. To date, reports indicate that eight people have been killed by law enforcement officers and at least 200 cases of police brutality have been recorded.
In Eswatini, the police commissioner warned journalists against writing “negative news” about the kingdom. The warning comes in the wake of the detention of former Times of Eswatini journalist Eugene Dube. The Economic Freedom Fighters of Swaziland issued a statement strongly condemning “the psychological warfare, abuse of power and demonising and torture of innocent journalists and its members by the police”.
In Zimbabwe, Lovemore Zvokusekwa was arrested for allegedly originating a statement that brought the president into “disrepute”. There was general outrage when police in Mutare arrested an opposition member of parliament, Regai Tsunga, on 21 April for distributing food as part of measures to mitigate the impact of Covid-19 measures on poor people facing starvation. Ruling party MPs have not faced a similar fate for doing the same thing. To date, reports indicate that there have been 190 assaults by the police, 12 attacks on journalists, 7,000 arrests — mainly people moving around in search of food — and one case of malicious damage to property.
Lockdowns and poverty
Severe hunger continues to threaten southern Africa’s efforts to enforce lockdowns. In its annual Global Report on Food Crises, released on 21 April, the UN World Food Program reported “the number of people battling acute hunger is on the rise again”. Although research for the publication was conducted before the coronavirus outbreak, the WFP supposes the pandemic “may push even more families and communities into deeper distress”.
On 24 April, a Zimbabwean man was arrested and charged with undermining the authority of President Emmerson Mnangagwa by allegedly circulating a message on social media accusing the country’s leader of ineptitude for not implementing a rescue package like that of his South African counterpart.
Malawi’s lockdown remains suspended until the government puts in place necessary socio-economic protection measures as ordered by the High Court. Authorities must strike a balance between enforcing compliance and ensuring respect for fundamental human rights. The government of South Africa has led the way in this. It allocated R500-billion towards relieving the plight of those most affected by the pandemic.
Access to water
The absence of clean and potable water, a key element in fighting the spread of Covid-19, remains a huge challenge in the region.
On 21 April, Community Water Alliance, a Zimbabwean civil society organisation, condemned the Zimbabwe Republic Police for arresting one of its staff members whilst she was on her way to help raise funds for sanitisers and public water points — even though she was in possession of a letter from the City of Harare giving her permission to do so.
South Africa should be applauded for availing R20-billion to municipalities tasked with provision of emergency water supply, increased sanitation of public transport and facilities, and providing food and shelter for the homeless.
Covid-19 testing, treatment and vaccination
Health experts have expressed worry over a significant rise in reported Covid-19 cases in Africa. This has prompted most governments to ramp up tests in addition to lockdowns.
South Africa has conducted more than 161,000 tests after rolling out a mass testing exercise earlier in April. On 14 April, the UN’s resident coordinator in Angola announced an additional grant of $12.5-million to combat Covid-19.
The WHO issued a warning that “there is currently no evidence that people who have recovered from Covid-19 and have antibodies are protected from a second infection”. This was after some governments were considering issuing “immunity passports” or “risk-free certificates” that would enable individuals to travel or to return to work assuming that they are protected against re-infection.
The Covid-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on two fronts: health and economy. With the exception of South Africa, the lack of government support for most citizens in the region has been exacerbated by the excessive use of force by authorities in the name of enforcing lockdowns. Denied the right to food, water and other basics, democracy is likely to be the next casualty for citizens as other important events such as elections have been caught in the Covid-19 crosshairs.
Whilst it can be argued that the postponement of these processes is important to constrain the spread of the virus, the implications are very worrisome. Measures ought to be taken to ensure that the interests of human rights and democracy are not unnecessarily sacrificed on the altar of the health emergency.
Southern African democracies are fragile and, in enforcing lockdowns and restrictions, authorities are urged to exercise restraint to limit further regression during this tremendous stress test.
Arnold Tsunga is a human rights lawyer, the director of the Africa Regional Programme of the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) and the immediate past-chairperson of the SAHRDN. Tatenda Mazarura is a Woman Human Rights Defender (WHRD), a professional rapporteur and an election expert. Mark Heywood is editor of Maverick Citizen.
We partnered with 29 other organizations and issued a statement on the need for urgent measures in Yemen to protect Civilians from Covid-19.
The conflict in Yemen is entering its sixth year, resulting in what is considered the worst man-made humanitarian crisis in the world. On 10 April, the first COVID-19 case was confirmed in the country. The warring parties, donor states, the United Nations (UN) and the European Union (EU) must take immediate and urgent steps to mitigate COVID-19’s potential outbreak and catastrophic impact in Yemen.
In the face of COVID-19, civilians in Yemen are particularly and acutely vulnerable. Due to the war, the health system has been severely damaged. The warring parties have obstructed and impeded humanitarian aid. Other contagious diseases have spread, including in detention facilities. Thousands of civilians have been killed and injured; more than 3.6 million people have been internally displaced; and over 80 per cent of Yemen’s population is now dependent on humanitarian aid, including for food, shelter and other basic services. According to the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen, Lise Grande, “ten million people are a step away from famine and seven million are malnourished.”
Addressing the Health, Humanitarian and Economic Crises
The health sector in Yemen has been decimated, the economy has crumbled, and the humanitarian response has been repeatedly and blatantly obstructed and interfered with by the warring parties.
The routine destruction and repeated occupation of health care facilities, as well as the killing and wounding of medical workers, has weakened Yemen’s health system, inflicted widespread suffering on civilians, and contributed to making the country increasingly vulnerable to health shocks like that posed by COVID-19. Only half of the country’s health facilities are functional. Many specialists, essential equipment, and supplies, including medicine, personal protective equipment, and ventilators, are scarcely available. In addition, Yemen has a recent history of outbreaks of communicable diseases, with the highest recorded number of suspected cholera cases in recent history.
The warring parties have blatantly obstructed and impeded the humanitarian response throughout the conflict, as well as weaponized the economy and food. Yemeni civil servants, including some doctors and health workers, in different parts of the country, have not been paid their salaries for nearly two years. In 2019, the Group of Eminent International and Regional Experts on Yemen (GEE) concluded that “starvation may have been used as a method of warfare by all parties to the conflict.”
Some international organizations announced the suspension of certain aid to Yemen in late March as a response to Houthi interference in aid deliveries and misuse of funds . The United States, the largest donor to Yemen, decided to cut humanitarian assistance on 27 March 2020, including funding that would help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The day before Yemen’s first COVID-19 case was announced, the World Food Programme said it was set to halve aid to parts of Yemen. An end to the interference in humanitarian aid by parties to the conflict is crucial, but the withdrawal of humanitarian aid, including life-saving supplies, at a time of urgent need risks creating an escalating catastrophe in Yemen.
Unsurprisingly, those already vulnerable—the displaced, those deprived of their liberty, refugees, migrants, the sick, hungry, and poor—have been and will be hit the hardest. In calling for the immediate lifting of international sanctions to prevent hunger crises in countries hit by COVID-19, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food urged the international community “to pay particular attention to the situation of civilians trapped in conflict settings, and notably those already experiencing acute violations of their right to food, such as in Yemen.”
Releasing Arbitrarily Held and Vulnerable Detainees and Improving Detention Conditions
Hundreds of civilians, including journalists and human rights defenders, have been arbitrarily detained and disappeared by the warring parties. Conditions of detention in Yemen are abysmal. Detention facilities are overcrowded, unsanitary, and have already witnessed the spread of contagious diseases. Health care is routinely not available and in some cases all together denied to detainees, while prison systems do not have the capacity, medical supplies or resources to respond to COVID-19.
These conditions put detainees and prisoners at heightened risk in times of a pandemic. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) warned that “in an overcrowded prison, once one person has COVID-19 it’s likely that hundreds of people will have it […] That means you’ll see a higher mortality rate in this prison population.”
In this context, the Group of Eminent International and Regional Experts on Yemen called on parties to take effective measures to mitigate the spread of the disease, including by releasing prisoners and detainees who are “particularly vulnerable and exposed to substantial risk” in “appalling detention conditions.” In addition, a coalition of NGOs expressed grave concern over the situation of detainees and prisoners across the Middle East and North Africa, particularly in states where prisons and detention facilities are often overcrowded, unsanitary, and suffer from a lack of resources.
A Complete and Credible Ceasefire; an End to All Attacks against Civilians
Since September 2014 and the escalations of March 2015, the Yemeni government, Ansar Allah (Houthi) armed group, the Saudi/UAE-led coalition and its affiliated proxy forces have persistently committed serious violations of international humanitarian law and gross human rights abuses. Abuses have included unlawful airstrikes, indiscriminate shelling, the use of landmines, arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearances, torture, and the recruitment of children. Various efforts to achieve peace have failed. Accountability has been absent.
On 25 March 2020, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, echoing his appeal for a global ceasefire, called “on those fighting in Yemen to immediately cease hostilities, focus on reaching a negotiated political settlement and do everything possible to counter a potential outbreak of COVID-19”. Despite the calls for a cessation of hostilities in Yemen, fighting has continued with the Houthi shelling of a prison in Taiz killing five women, two young girls and a policewoman, and wounding nine, including six other women, two girls and a civilian man in Taiz. On 9 April 2020, the Saudi/UAE-led coalition declared a unilateral two-week ceasefire in Yemen. Civil society from around the world joined the appeal for a global ceasefire, including in Yemen. Yet to date, fighting has continued in Yemen. To ensure a response to COVID-19 is in fact possible, all parties to the conflict must commit to a ceasefire.
Adopting a Human Rights-Based Response to COVID-19
While the authorities in various parts of Yemen have a responsibility to take preventive measures and other steps to protect people in areas under their control from the spread of COVID-19, any response must respect human rights and fundamental freedoms. Any emergency measures should be necessary and proportionate. Yemenis must be informed of such measures, which should be time bound. The enforcement of emergency measures must be carried out in line with international law and without discrimination. In times of pandemic, access to information, including transparent coverage of the humanitarian situation and the spread of the virus in Yemen, is particularly crucial .
Times of crises have been repeatedly misused by those in power in Yemen to impose unlawful restrictions. Since September 2014 when Ansar Allah seized control over Sanaa, the warring parties have closed public spaces in the country, restricted the right to expression, and attacked, harassed, and detained journalists, media workers, activists and humanitarian workers.
Considering the dire need for immediate effective measures to be taken by all parties to the conflict and third parties in the face of this pandemic, we urge: The warring parties in Yemen, namely the Saudi/UAE-led coalition, internationally recognized government of Yemen, and Ansar Allah (Houthi) armed group to:
- Immediately lift restrictions on humanitarian aid and critical life-saving goods going into and across Yemen and end all forms of interference with and obstruction of humanitarian operations. To this end, all parties must abide by international humanitarian aid norms and ensure that no aid is diverted or misused for political and financial gain. The warring parties must facilitate unimpeded access and movement of humanitarian aid, medical supplies, humanitarian workers, and life-saving commercial goods without interference or discrimination throughout Yemen; and end blockades, sieges and other actions that prevent or restrict humanitarian and essential commercial imports;
- Immediately halt fighting across Yemen and implement a complete ceasefire on the ground. The warring parties should re-focus efforts on countering the outbreak of COVID-19 in Yemen, including through dialogue amongst the warring parties and the implementation of coordinated responses; and work with the UN Special Envoy to urgently restart comprehensive political negotiations to end the conflict;
- Take urgent steps to reduce the prison population, and to disclose the fate of the disappeared. In this regard, the warring parties should:
- Release all those arbitrarily detained in a manner which ensures the dignity, safety and security of those released;
- Conduct a thorough review of the prison population and order the immediate release of “low-risk” detainees and prisoners and the particularly vulnerable, including children, the elderly and those with health conditions that make them more vulnerable to COVID-19;
- Provide detainees with adequate sanitary installations, regular access to sanitary facilities and prompt accessible health care, including access to COVID-19 testing and adequate treatment on a standard equal to the general population;
- Ensure access for recognized monitors of detention conditions to all detention facilities, official and unofficial;
- Ensure that detainees are afforded the right to fair trial, and are provided with means of communication with the outside world.
- Fulfil their obligations and duties under international law to protect and respect the rights of the Yemeni population in all parts of Yemen in their response to the COVID-19; and,
- Come to an agreement to immediately begin Yemeni civil servant salary payments, with a priority for health workers, and work to facilitate other forms of support to Yemeni civilians.
The United Nations
- Take measures to ensure respect for a ceasefire in Yemen and a halt to acts of violence by all parties to the conflict in order to coordinate and carry out a response to the COVID-19 crisis.
Security Council and Human Rights Council
- Demand that warring parties release individuals arbitrarily detained, take urgent steps to improve conditions of detention and reduce the overall prison population, and demand an immediate end to the obstruction and interference with humanitarian aid and critical commercial imports;
- Reiterate that accountability and redress are non-negotiable aspects of any sustainable peace.
Human Rights Council
- Ensure the mandate of the GEE includes collection and preservation of evidence of human rights violations and abuses, and provide all necessary support for the GEE to monitor the human rights and humanitarian effects of COVID-19 in Yemen, including the steps taken by the parties to the conflict to protect the right to health of the Yemen population.
The states, particularly those with influence over the warring parties, including the United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Union and its Member States:
- Urgently and significantly increase funding for the full range of humanitarian programming in Yemen, including to support the call of the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen to maintain UN programs running;
- Lift unilateral measures and reconsider funding cuts to Yemen which would affect the delivery of essential humanitarian services in facing the urgent threat of COVID-19 and pursue alternative, necessary prevention and mitigation measures to avoid obstruction and interference;
- Increase the provision of basic services, medical supplies, treatment centers, field hospitals and prevention activities, as well as facilitate cooperative measures to avert and mitigate COVID-19 implications to avoid placing Yemenis at further unnecessary risk, particularly women, children, people with disabilities, the marginalized, internally displaced and refugees in northern areas, who are acutely vulnerable to the spread of the disease;
- End all licensing for and deliveries of arms, ammunition and military equipment to all warring parties in Yemen to promote the implementation of a cessation of hostilities, in line with UN Security Council resolutions 2216 (2015) and 2511 (2020), the Arms Trade Treaty and the EU Common Position on Arms Exports;
- Continue to effectively support the UN-led processes and tools to achieve an immediate and sustainable ceasefire in Yemen; and,
- Support efforts related to achieving accountability and redress for violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law committed by all parties to the conflict.
- Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS)
- Mwatana for Human Rights
- The Conflict and Environment Observatory (CEOB)
- The Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network (SAHRDN)
- Asian Legal Resource Centre (ALRC)
- MENA Rights Group
- Campaign Against Arms Trade
- The African Centre for Democracy and Human Rights Studies (ACDHRS)
- GLAN | Global Legal Action Network
- Human Rights Clinic (Columbia Law School)
- ALQST for Human Rights
- Dhameer For Rights and Freedom
- Musaala for Human Rights
- Peace and Building Foundation
- Watch for Human Rights
- Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect
- International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH)
- Shadow World Investigations
- Action Corps
- Yemen Relief and Reconstruction Foundation
- Yemeni Alliance Committee
- PAX for Peace
- The University Network for Human Rights
- Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR)
- Physicians for Human Rights
- Center for International Policy
Issue 2, 19 – 24 April 2020
The Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network and Maverick Citizen launched the Southern Africa Weekly Human Rights Roundup, aimed at highlighting important human rights news in Southern Africa. The Human Rights Roundup integrates efforts of human rights defenders and facilitates evidence-based engagement with key stakeholders, and institutions on the human rights situation across the region.
China-Africa, Covid-19 and human rights
This week, we continue exploring the measures being taken to combat Covid-19 and their impact on human rights. Quite astonishingly, the measures in China had the biggest reaction from the civil society movement in Africa, including in Southern Africa.
Recent media reports and social media video footage suggest that Chinese officials accused African people living in China, mainly in Guangzhou province, of being responsible for the second outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in China.
The reports allege that people of African descent were being systematically targeted and subjected to a variety of human rights violations, and abuses by the Chinese people, including by the Chinese police. Among other things, they were being forcefully evicted from their rented homes without notice, forcefully quarantined for 14 days despite having no symptoms, nor recent travel history or contact with Covid-19 patients, and subjected to forcible random and indiscriminate Covid-19 tests.
In a number of incidents, people from Africa were being forcibly prohibited from shopping or going to public places such as restaurants. They were also having their travel documents seized without legal basis.
In response to what was seen as China’s xenophobic violations and abuse of the rights of African people, some African Union (AU) governments and the African Group of Ambassadors in Beijing issued statements condemning the gross human rights violations and demanding the “cessation of forceful testing, quarantine and other inhuman treatments meted out to Africans”.
Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Botswana and South Africa proved more vocal amid concerns that the xenophobic attacks would strain China-Africa relations. Others called on China to ease African countries’ debt burden or totally cancel the same as a sign of remorse.
On 12 April 2020, the Chinese Foreign Ministry issued a statement affirming how much China values China-Africa relations, insisting that China and Africa are good friends, partners and brothers. In the statement, China committed to continue providing fair, just, cordial and friendly reception to African nationals, and to continue responding to reasonable concerns and legitimate appeals.
Unfortunately, the statement offered no apologies to Africa, despite overwhelming evidence of the racist and xenophobic attacks.
In an unprecedented move, over 9,000 AU citizens, including Civil Society Organisations (CSOs), women and youth organisations, lawyers, judges, journalists, human rights activists and Africans in the diaspora, have submitted a petition to the AU. The petition was coordinated by the Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network (SAHRDN) and Africa Defenders.
African civil society saw the reactions of the Chinese authorities as wholly inadequate and condescending. The petition urged African leaders to demand a full and independent investigation into the human rights violations in China and to ensure that immediate remedial action is taken, including bringing perpetrators to justice while offering full reparations and compensation to the victims.
“As Africa civil society organisations and people, we feel that the relationship between the AU and China that our AU leaders always describe as excellent and of all-weather friends has never been sufficiently scrutinised by African civil society in terms of its impact on human rights. The brazen attacks on people of African descent in China have demonstrated that China is a bully in this partnership and part of it is explained on the basis of its clever use of debt diplomacy (large expensive loans) to shackle African leaders and take away their voice in the relationship.”Charles Chimedza, the protection officer at the Defenders Network and coordinator of the open letter to the AU
African civil society will no longer be silent and will now hold AU and Chinese leaders to account for human rights violations against African people, whether in China or in Africa.
Status of lockdowns in Southern Africa
The spread of Covid-19 is at different stages around Southern Africa and authorities continue to take country-specific measures to contain the situation. While lockdowns were extended by an average of 2-3 weeks in some countries such as Namibia, South Africa, Zimbabwe and eSwatini, others like Zambia remained under partial lockdown across the country with a complete lockdown of Kafue district being in effect from 14 April 2020 after it was declared a hot-spot.
In Malawi, efforts to lock down by embattled President Peter Mutharika hit a brick wall after High Court Judge Justice Kenyatta Nyirenda ruled against the lockdown, ordering a temporary injunction for seven days pending a full-blooded hearing on whether a lockdown should be imposed or not.
The challenge in Malawi was made by the Malawi Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC).
In Zimbabwe, stakeholders are questioning if the country’s lockdown is constitutional. While the Minister of Health promulgated a series of statutory instruments to contain the Covid-19 pandemic, the lockdown restricts freedom of movement and assembly guaranteed by sections 66 and 58 of the Constitution respectively.
Human rights lawyer David Hofisi argued that: “Not only do the statutory instruments infringe fundamental freedoms, they create new powers, such as those allowing the Minister of Home Affairs to close ports of entry and exit as he deems fit.”
He added that executive excesses were deliberate “institutional choices by a machiavellian executive. It is not an innocent mistake by a well-meaning administration. These are powerful functionaries circumventing constitutional imperatives to increase the scope and scale of executive power”.
Lockdowns and police brutality
The week saw continued cases of harassment of defenceless citizens (including journalists), by state security agents, particularly the police and the army for allegedly breaching lockdown regulations or spreading fake news.
A man from Alexandra, north of Johannesburg, died after allegedly being assaulted by soldiers on 10 April 2020, resulting in the South Africa National Defense Union (SANDU) reportedly calling for a military inquiry into the murder which is still under investigation.
In Botswana, two people were severely assaulted by the police for allegedly breaching lockdown regulations. The government issued a statement on 11 April 2020, condemning the assault of citizens and calling for upholding the rule of law and respect for human rights.
In eSwatini, police reportedly harassed Swaziland news editor, Zweli Martin Dlamini’s wife and children for spreading “fake news”, that suggested that King Mswati III had contracted Covid-19, insisting that the king “is well and in good health”.
In Zimbabwe, freelance journalist James Jemwa was temporarily detained by soldiers and police officers and forced to delete the footage he had recorded at Gwenyambira shops. The Zimbabwe Police Commissioner went on to say that journalists should stay at home and be bound by national lockdown regulations, arguing that they are not providers of an essential service and claiming that only journalists from “broadcasting services” (usually government-controlled) are exempted.
Covid-19 measures should be targeted at producing public health outcomes and not be exploited as an avenue to clamp down on human rights.
On 17 April 2020, in an unusual step, all the UN Special Rapporteurs expressed “grave concern at the multiplication of accounts of police killings and other acts of violence within the context of Covid-19 emergency measures”, expressing alarm: “At the rise of reports of killings and other instances of excessive use of force targeting in particular people living in vulnerable situations.”
The UN SRs went on further to state that “breaking a curfew, or any restriction on freedom of movement, cannot justify resorting to excessive use of force by the police; under no circumstances should it lead to the use of lethal force”.
Lockdowns and poverty
Granted, the most effective way of slowing the virus down is isolation and physical distancing. However, the plight of a significant population that practically lives from hand to mouth in informal economies in Southern Africa needs to be taken into account to avoid criminalising normal human behaviour for everyday survival.
In Malawi, many small-scale traders who declared that “it would be better to contract the virus than die of hunger,” rejected the lockdown through protests. The Malawi situation is worsened by the trust that has been lost between those who govern and the governed. A significant number of people view the lockdown as a means by which the president is trying to stop political activity ahead of fresh elections ordered by the Constitutional Court in February 2020.
Reports of chaotic mealie-meal distribution in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe where even the police are abusing their authority to get the bulk of deliveries for resale at exorbitant prices are disturbing.
In Namibia on 17 April 2020, over 500 people gathered at the Moses//Garoeb Constituency office in Windhoek demanding Covid-19 food relief packages. The constituency has a population of an estimated 60,000 people yet the councillor’s office had only received 700 food packages. Physical fights reportedly broke out between civilians and law enforcement agents, as the former scrambled for the limited packages.
The African Commission on Human and People’s Rights has already expressed alarm about the vulnerability “of homeless people, prisoners, the masses of people living in highly congested and poor neighbourhoods like slums lacking sanitation and those who survive on a hand-to-mouth basis, people in Internally Displaced Persons camps, refugees, asylum seekers and migrants with devastating consequences, including the risk of enduring severe illness and losing their lives without receiving adequate care”.
Access to water
Despite recommendations by the World Health Organisation (WHO) that water, sanitation and good hygiene are key elements in fighting the spread of Covid-19, access to clean and potable water in Southern Africa’s urban and informal settlements remains a huge challenge.
Reports indicate that lockdowns may have worsened already existing challenges and inequalities in accessing water, and sanitation services – Cape Town and Harare being some of the most affected areas.
South Africa’s Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation Minister Lindiwe Sisulu announced that the ministry procured 41,000 water tanks for national distribution to ensure water supply during the lockdown period. She, however, expressed concern that “the threat and risk of coronavirus in our informal settlements is real and that we have to make haste so that we don’t find ourselves overwhelmed”.
Efforts to ensure that Gweru residents in Zimbabwe are supplied with water received a knock after Bulawayo High Court Judge Justice Maxwell Takuva dismissed an application filed by Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) on behalf of Gweru Residents Forum.
The absence of water forces citizens, particularly women, to defy lockdown regulations as they search for water, hence endangering their lives.
Covid-19 testing, treatment and vaccination
A Zimbabwe court ordered the government to provide healthcare workers with protective gear and to roll out mass testing. The Zimbabwe Doctors for Human Rights (ZADHR) brought the case to compel the government to provide protection for public hospitals and healthcare workers who are on the frontline of fighting the pandemic.
There is still no good news about the treatment and an effective vaccination against the Covid-19. Sadly, the UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) says that “the Covid-19 pandemic will likely kill at least 300,000 Africans” and push “29 million into extreme poverty” unless a $100-billion (R1.8-trillion) safety net can be found for the continent’s population.
Despite efforts by the US to oppose it, the UN General Assembly led by Mexico on 20 April 2020 adopted by consensus of 193 members, a resolution that calls for “equitable, efficient and timely” access to any vaccine developed to fight the Covid-19 pandemic.
In other news
Lesotho: On 18 April 2020, Prime Minister Thomas Thabane deployed armed soldiers, clad in bulletproof vests and helmets onto the streets to “restore order”, accusing unarmed law enforcement agencies of undermining democracy. This resulted in South Africa sending a delegation to Lesotho to meet the prime minister, members of the opposition and civil society to mediate, resulting in the news that the PM had agreed to resign.
Botswana: On 17 April, Botswana’s Ministry of International Affairs and Cooperation in a statement refuted claims that the government of Botswana has embarked on forceful deportation of Zimbabwean nationals, arguing that this was a voluntary repatriation exercise by both governments following requests from Zimbabweans who wanted to be assisted to go back home.
Mozambique: On 17 April, Mozambique’s public prosecutor reportedly refused to compensate the family of an electoral observer who was gunned down by police in the run-up to the 2019 national elections. The development sparked outrage among local rights advocates. Adriano Nuvunga, head of Mozambique’s Centre for Democracy and Development, said Matavele’s murder was a “state crime”.
Even though the Covid-19 disaster has engulfed the world with unimaginably disastrous consequences for life, health, economies and way of life, for Southern Africa, it has just served as a stark reminder of the urgent need to always address poverty, inequality and injustice by the Southern Africa authorities.
Widespread poverty, inequality and injustice have complicated responses to the huge health emergency. Priorities need to change with a more sustained focus on improving almost moribund health systems in many Southern African countries.
There can be no better way to manage these kinds of crises than investing in resilient systems that make effective responses possible. For now, we can only be thankful that the region is not the epicentre of the pandemic. Otherwise, we would be staring at a disaster of monumental proportions.
Arnold Tsunga is a Human Rights Lawyer, the Director of the Africa Regional Programme of the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) and the Chairperson of the SAHRDN; Tatenda Mazarura is a Woman Human Rights Defender (WHRD), a Professional Rapporteur and an Election Expert; Mark Heywood is the editor of Maverick Citizen.
Together with our umbrella body the PANHRDN and sister sub-regional networks the SAHRDN sent an open letter to the African Union Commission Chairperson, H.E Moussa Faki. In the letter, we call on the African Union and African leaders to demand a complete investigation and immediate remedial action for the inhuman and xenophobic treatment of Africans living in China in the context of COVID-19. Read the letter below
To: H.E Moussa Faki
The Chairperson, African Union Commission
P.O. Box P.O. Box 3243, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
13 April 2020
We present our compliments to Your Excellency. The undersigned Peoples represent a broad cross-section of the citizens of the African Union (AU) and include civil society organisations (CSOs), women organisations and feminist movements, labour and students movements, youth organisations, professional associations, lawyers, judges, academicians, business people, clergy, artists, activists, and journalists.
We note with appreciation the AU’s commitment to the continued transforming of the AU from a union of governments to a genuine union of African peoples that values popular participation and ownership by African peoples.
We further appreciate the AU’s commitment to ensuring that Africa is socially, politically and economically integrated. That the continent speaks with one voice in global affairs. We understand the basis and values of partnership that the drive AU Agenda 2063, including the values of equality, mutual accountability, reciprocity, and solidarity. In this regard and given the excellent relationship the AU and the majority of its member states have so far enjoyed with China, we want to register our most profound concern and strongly condemn the recent acts of discrimination, xenophobia, and racism against the Africans in China.
We welcome the statements of the African Group of Ambassadors in Beijing and reactions from different African governments and your good offices in this regard. There is a need to transform these statements into practical action that puts an end to the horrendous dehumanisation of Africans in China.
Your Excellency, Chinese authorities are allegedly forcefully testing, quarantining and inhumanely treating African people in Guangdong Province in particular. This discrimination and stigmatisation of Africans include being made to undergo epidemic investigation and the Nucleic Acid Test forcefully. The Africans have also been subjected to fourteen (14) days quarantine even if they have not traveled outside their jurisdictions or come into contact with infected persons, or had close contact or showing any symptoms of the COVID-19. This treatment is in violation of international human rights laws and principles. It is inhuman and against all principles of dignity and shared humanity that should ideally guide China-Africa relations. Singling out only Africans is a xenophobic and racist act contrary to the spirit of FOCAC 8.
Your Excellency, Africa’s strong cooperation economic ties with China, should not thrive at the cost of human rights and human dignity. These are the core principles of our Constitutive Act 2000.
Your Excellency, these despicable events and other recurrent complaints regarding illicit activities by Chinese businesses in Africa now demand that the framework of cooperation establish clear standards of mutual accountability. Such standards of accountability must be formulated with the active participation of African citizens. We believe that without strong mutual accountability frameworks, the message of solidarity preached by China towards Africans, will ring hollow. The participation of African people in defining the framework of the partnership will ensure that going forward China-Africa partnership has a human face and is reflected in Chinese business conduct in Africa and our mutual solidarity is also a reality reflected on the streets of Chinese cities and provinces.
Your Excellency, a participatory and inclusive framework of partnership that reflects the Accra, Busan and Mexico principles will place human and peoples’ rights at the centre. This framework will address the imbalance in trade; ballooning debt; restrain dumping of inferior quality goods by strengthening standards monitoring and control illicit financial outflows and corrupt practices by Chinese businesses operating in Africa. These decisive interventions are critical to preserve the dignity of Africa and its people.
Your Excellency, the AU has done well by officially protesting to its Chinese counterparts. We now urge your good offices and African leaders to demand a full and independent investigation into the violations referred to above and immediate remedial action is taken. At the very least, we believe that the spirit of solidarity and partnership demands that China apologises and makes good the grave offence to the African Peoples’. We believe that China understands that we, as African people, deserve respect and equal treatment.
We remain, at your disposal to respond to any additional queries that you may have via Hassan Shire Hassans@defenddefenders.org, phone +256772752752 or Fatou Diagne firstname.lastname@example.org phone +221773335845 or Arnold Tsunga email@example.com phone +27716405926. We take this opportunity to reassure Your Excellency of our highest considerations once again.
You can sign on to the letter here: http://chng.it/Y9TYyxVC
Please read the full letter with signatures below
Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network (SAHRDN) and Maverick Citizen launched a new feature on the 15th of April 2020.
The weekly Human Rights RoundUp is meant to give snapshots of the main human rights news that happens in Southern African countries, particularly related to the growing Covid-19 crisis.
By telling and reflecting on these stories we hope we will be contributing towards integrating the efforts of human rights defenders across the region. It is also intended to inform the policy community of the main threats confronting human rights defenders.
Locking down human rights
The main issue is obviously the Covid-19 lockdown measures and their impact on human rights.
In the last few weeks, all ten Southern African countries have issued public measures to contain the coronavirus. These ‘lockdowns’ were generally of a minimum of three weeks, but are now all being systematically extended mainly by an average of a further two weeks.
For example, on April 9th 2020, South Africa’s President announced the extension of the lockdown measures for an additional two weeks (at least).
President Mnangagwa of Zimbabwe has already hinted that he may extend the lockdown measures and is currently reflecting based on recommendations coming from the WHO.
On 9 April, the Botswana Parliament endorsed the President’s 21 day declaration of state of emergency and extended it to six months. This gives the President Masisi significant power to make decisions with minimum Parliamentary oversight. Civil society groups are already concerned about this given the allegations already emerging of irregular tenders to procure equipment to fight Covid-19 that have been made and reduce government accountability to levels that are not normal in Botswana.
A quick investigation showed that Southern African countries used one international justification and one of two domestic legal reasons to impose the lockdowns. The international basis was the declaration of the Covid-19 as a global pandemic by the World Health Organisation (WHO). The local basis was either the declaration of a state of disaster or the declaration of a state of emergency.
South Africa and Zimbabwe declared a state of disaster while Angola, Mozambique, Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, Eswatini and Malawi have declared states of emergency.
These declarations have given extensive powers to governments to impose measures to try and contain the spread of the Covid-19.
However, a major concern is the excessive use of force and violence by soldiers and police against unarmed civilians suspected of breaching lockdown regulations. The violations include extrajudicial killings in South Africa and Zimbabwe; assaults with sticks, open hands and booted feet; torture including forced exercises like crunches, push-ups and rolling on hard surfaces and mud. In Durban and Cape Town South Africa despite a government declared moratorium against evictions, there were violent evictions of shack dwellers such as Abahlali base Mjondolo.
In all countries, there have been reports of arbitrary arrests and detentions. This comes at a time when courts are not fully functional and exercising effective oversight over the police or the executive.
To their credit, Angola and South Africa are reported to have arrested some of the security officers who assaulted unarmed civilians. In Lesotho the Assistant Commissioner of Police Complaints and Discipline issued a Memorandum on 1 April to the police to stop torturing civilians as ‘that was not part of their deployment instructions’!
In Namibia Lt. Gen. Sebastian Haitota Ndeitunga, the Police Inspector-General also issued a statement denouncing violations of rights of people by the police on 8 April.
Sadly other countries like Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Zambia, and Malawi have not taken any action against errant police details and soldiers who assault, torture or violate the rights of civilians.
As a result, on 8 April prominent Namibian Human Rights lawyer Norman Tjombe invited members of the public who fall victim to abuse to seek free (pro-bono) legal services to sue the police for compensation in civil proceedings.
Locking down poverty
Another major concern has been the incompatibility between the lockdowns requirements and extreme poverty. Across Southern Africa, the requirement of social distancing has proved a tall order if not impossible in extremely poor communities with no adequate housing in all high population density locations in cities.
Near business as usual movement of people as they scramble for basics such as food for survival is still common in South Africa. In Zimbabwe Mbare and Highfields in Harare, Sakubva and Chikanga in Mutare and Mzilikazi and Makokoba in Bulawayo also experienced near business as usual conditions.
In Mozambique the townships of Chamanculo, Mafalala, Polana Canico, Maxquane and Hulene in Maputo; Manga, Munhava, Goto and Nhamudima in Beira are near impossible to impose social distancing due to overcrowding and limited accommodation.
Luanda, Lusaka, Windhoek and Gaborone have similar residential locations where social distancing is near impossible to implement.
It is fortuitous that, as yet, Covid-19 has not spread to such locations across Southern Africa.
The other incompatibility with social distancing is that communities in all these Southern African cities have to scramble for food on a daily basis making it difficult for them to remain in-doors.
In Mutare, Zimbabwe, armed police expropriated and burnt huge quantities of food from the poor at Sakubva market under the guise of imposing lockdown measures.
Access to water
The requirement to regularly wash hands was also near impossible to achieve due to the absence of clean and potable water in many urban centers in Southern Africa. Harare is just one example of a big city to have such a problem. The absence of water resulted in Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) mounting a series of public interest litigation cases in different provinces to compel the authorities to supply water to the people during the lockdow
The 2013 Constitution of Zimbabwe guarantees the right to safe and potable water for everyone and this is the first time that the lawyers have taken a concerted effort to assert such rights in Zimbabwe.
As a result, on 7 April in Mutare High Court Judge Justice Mwayera ordered the City of Mutare and the government of Zimbabwe to provide safe and potable water for residents of Dangamvura on schedules published and accessible to the public: the case was brought by Ephraim Matanda and United Mutare Residents and Ratepayers Trust against the City of Mutare and the Ministry of Local Government and argued by human rights lawyers Passmore Nyakureba and Kelvin Kabaya.
In Zambia, civil society expressed shock when videos started circulating on 8 April of a ruling party official distributing masks made of their political party regalia.
The material the masks are made from did not seem to meet WHO standards Martin Masiga, Secretary-General of Africa Judges Forum, arguing that “those cloth masks … offer 0% protection and 100% exposure.”
Vaccine Development and testing
Civil society in Southern Africa was engaged in hot debate after a video of two French doctors was leaked where they were discussing that Africa should be the main testing ground for vaccines.
The WHO Director-General, Dr. Tedros Ghebreyesus, condemned as racist the suggestion that the COVID-19 vaccines be tested first in Africa.
Prominent soccer players Didier Drogba and Samuel Eto’o were also at the forefront of arguing that Africa is not a laboratory.
The fear of Africans continuing to be used as guinea pigs to test vaccines to save humanity was raised in the SAHRDN discussion platform. While the need for the development and testing of a vaccine was generally accepted, there was concern after two French doctors were caught on video discussing extensive testing on African people.
In other news
Malawi: On 1 April 2020 prominent human rights defender Mr Timothy Mtambo resigned as Executive Director of the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation and Chairperson of the Malawi Human Rights Defenders Coalition ahead of the fresh elections in July 2020 ordered by the Constitutional Court of Malawi.
In his resignation Mtambo publicly stated his support for the opposition coalition against incumbent President Mutharika whom he accused of breach of the Constitution and wanton violations of human rights and abuse of power with impunity. He also announced that he has formed a new citizen’s movement called the Citizens for Transformation, focussing on democracy consolidation.
Mtambo indicated that his decision to create a civil society movement that gave people a greater voice in socio-economic and political develpments was informed by the need to help rescue Malawi from what he referred to as “accidental and transactional leadership.” The former HRDC Chairperson has faced numerous arrests for spearheading anti-government protests since last year’s disputed presidential elections.
On 8 April 2020 the SAHRDN and the Pan Africa Lawyers Union issued a statement advising that the African Court on Human and People’s Rights (AfCOURT) has suspended the execution of a US$ 29,000 punitive personal costs court order imposed against Charles Kajoloweka, a Malawian frontline Human Rights Defender by the Supreme Court of Malawi.
Kajoloweka took the punitive costs order made against him by the Supreme Court of Malawi for scrutiny to the AfCOURT arguing that it amounted to indirect punishment by the judiciary of a human rights defender who used public interest litigation legitimately to demand good and accountable governance. This was after he had sued President Mutharika to fire a Minister, George Chiponda, who was alleged to have swindled millions of public funds in Malawi’s Kwacha in a scandal known as “Maize Gate”.
Mozambique: On 7 April 2020 the village of Muedunbwe in Cabo Delgado Province in the North of Mozambique came under attack by the so-called Daesh or rebels.
Southern Africa civil society continues to express deep concern at the deteriorating security situation in oil and natural gas rich Cabo Delgado province calling for a more nuanced and deep understanding of the political economy of the security situation and understanding of who solution holders are.
They call for stronger government action to protect civilians and for journalists to be allowed unimpeded access in order to report openly on what is going on. They have also called for SADC to declare the situation there a matter of threat to regional peace and security and intervene to restore the rule of law. Prior, Amnesty International issued a statement calling on authorities in Mozambique to do all needed to lawfully protect people in Cabo Delgado.
Eswatini: On 8 April 2020 Eswatini media reported that the latest United States of America 2019 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices alleges that the Eswatini government and its agents carried out ‘arbitrary or unlawful killings’ in 2019.
For example the report alleges that:
“In June police shot and killed a man suspected of harboring prison escapees and drug dealing. There were no reports that the suspect attacked or otherwise threatened the police. In early June, a man was found severely injured after being questioned by police. The man’s cousin alleged that the man was beaten by police, and then left to die in a secluded area some 18 miles away.”
The report alleges other violations by the Eswatini government including arbitrary arrests, torture and extra-judicial killings that happened with impunity.
Zambia: On 9 April the government-controlled Independent Broadcasting Agency canceled the broadcasting/television license of the popular Prime Television Station citing “public interest … safety, security, peace, welfare and good order” as the reason for such action.
Civil society sees this conduct as part of the wider government policy of systematically closing civic space ahead of the 2021 elections in order to consolidate power by President Edgar Lungu.
This is another high level of media closure after similar action was taken against The Post newspaper. The Law Association of Zambia issued a statement on 11 April 2020, strongly condemning the closure and asking the government to reverse the decision on account of numerous irregularities that they cited.
To date, the Zambian authorities have still not reversed the decision despite widespread criticism from various stakeholders with the latest being by the International Press Institute.
The attacks on civic space also include arbitrary arrests and detentions of human rights defenders; the case of Pilato, Laura Miti and Barnabas Mwewa is a case in point, the three defenders were arrested for promoting human rights in Livingstone. Their case is still pending.
Arnold Tsunga is a Human Rights Lawyer, the Director of the Africa Regional Programme of the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) and the Chairperson of the SAHRDN; Tatenda Mazarura is a Woman Human Rights Defender (WHRD), a Professional Rapporteur and an Election Expert; Mark Heywood is the editor of Maverick Citizen.