Calls to uphold human rights

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By Moses Magadza

EZULWINI - The curtain fell on the 39th Plenary Assembly Session of the SADC Parliamentary Forum recently with calls for SADC Member States to uphold human rights in order to spur socio-economic development.

Making a presentation during a symposium organized to interrogate the role of national parliaments in upholding human rights, Amnesty International's Southern Africa Office Director Mr. Deprose Muchena, challenged delegates to work towards ensuring that the universal declaration of rights is experienced in every country. The delegates included Speakers of the 14-member National Parliaments of SADC PF and Parliamentarians.


Amnesty International’s Southern Africa Office Director Mr. Deprose MuchenaMuchena noted that Parliaments play the fundamental roles of lawmaking, providing oversight over the executive and civil engagement and that the Africa Union has declared 2016 as the year of human rights. He therefore said lawmaking "must equate laws being passed by Parliament, not laws passing through Parliament".

He said in some instances laws pass through Parliaments "with the speed of unidentified objects", with limited debate, with limited input from civil society and with limited input from experts who can enrich the laws.

He dismissed views in some quarters that human rights were a western imposition or part of some package designed to reverse the gains of political independence. On the contrary, he said, human rights actually strengthen the gains of independence.

"Independence does not just equate the national flag and anthem. It means entitlements, service delivery, the state being accountable and the human condition materially improving," he said.

Colonial legacy

Muchena said although the SADC Region was part of a global human rights struggle - having strenuously fought for good governance and democracy - many member states were still saddled with problems that they inherited during colonialism.

He said some of the problems were related to what he described as "the two nations model" created by colonialism, characterized by mass inequality and a widening income gap; a function of a colonial project that has not been destroyed by postcolonial governments.

Muchena said by not ending inequality, member states were creating fertile ground for a violent reaction "from a population that has lost everything and has nothing more to lose except their chains of poverty and inequality."

Challenges for MPs

He said the region's Parliamentarians should strive to eradicate poverty which affects about 40 percent of citizens of middle income countries and up to 90 percent of citizens of struggling developing countries.

Added to that is the existence of two economies: the formal sector which employs only about 20 percent of the population of those who provide labour, and the informal sector, in which 80 percent of the region's people eke a living.

"Our policies are targeted at only the formal sector. Each of our Parliaments must begin to examine whether, when policies and laws are enacted, they are coming to destroy that picture or to strengthen it."

Illicit outflows and volatility

Muchena spoke at a time of unprecedented excitement about the rise of the African continent. Ten of the 17 fastest economies in the world are reported to be in Africa, three them from southern Africa.

The media is abuzz with stories of rising Gross Domestic Products (GDPs), increasing export earnings, trade and investment. Evidence shows that SADC countries have rich natural endowments that include oil in, copper in, diamonds, gold and platinum. Additionally, the SADC Region is home to many middle-income economies.

Muchena said in spite of these impressive stories of economic growth, there were economic, social and political setbacks.

"We are losing 1, 8 trillion US dollars between 1970 and 2008 in illicit outflows of capital. We need to do something as a (regional) parliament to stop the illicit outflows of money, without which we can't meet the human rights mandate."

He said illicit outflows of money has many negative ripple effects; many people being unable to access formal education, health facilities manned by qualified health personnel or clean water.

Muchena said another challenge for the SADC Region and the entire African continent related to the volatility of the many mineral and natural resources that many countries rely upon. This negatively impacted on the ability of member states to provide for their citizens.

"Social setbacks relate to access to primary education. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, (approximately) 15 million children aged from seven to 18 years are out of school… a fertile ground for people with extreme ideas," he said, adding that other countries with social setbacks included South Africa, Lesotho, Zimbabwe and Botswana.

Other challenges were in the areas of maternal mortality, child marriage, poor service delivery, poor access to information, HIV and AIDS, gender inequality, jobless economic growth, stigma and lack of access to basic services.

"These are the things that are stopping Africa from rising for everybody."

Political setbacks

Turning to political setbacks, Muchena said in some member states there were still challenges with respect to how elections were conducted which affected the people's right to choose, move or assemble during elections.

"Nineteen to 25 percent of elections on the continent are characterized by violence," he said.

Spot on?

Botswana's parliamentarian Mr. Duma Boko who also attended the plenary, said Muchena was spot on and urged the region's lawmakers to take heed.

"I agree with most - if not all - of the things (Muchena) said. One thing he did not put across pointedly, is the institutional capacity of parliament to execute its mandate and live up to the fundamental human rights tenets that all parliaments are supposed to uphold," Boko said.

Botswana’s parliamentarian Mr. Duma Boko.He said the manner in which most parliament were led tended to compromise their ability to defend the rights of all and sundry. He gave the example of the speakership in most parliaments.

"The speaker in parliament must be likened to a judge; an impartial arbiter in the competition that takes place on the floor of parliament between competing ideologies and interests," he said.

His view was that in most parliaments the speakers were partisan.

"They are members of the dominant ruling party, tending therefore not to be impartial but absolutely hostile to any ideas that come from the opposing camp."

He said it might help parliaments to better carry out their mandate if they appointed speakers that were detached from the arena of conflict and competition "to enable a more robust engagement that does not result in the protection of certain interests by a partisan speaker".

Damning verdict

Boko does not believe that many of the region's parliaments have done enough to protect the rights of the people.

"I think parliaments have done painfully little. A lot of them have tended to be complicit in the violation of people's rights. The issue of human rights is not an episodic and marginal issue calling for sporadic intervention. It's a sustained and engaged programmatic issue requiring constant oversight and supervision."

His view was that some parliaments had tended to be overly protective of governments while in some countries the worst violations of people's human rights were carried out by governments.

"When you have a parliament that is not sufficiently independent to hold the executive and other branches of government accountable, you'll have a parliament that is complicit in the violations of human rights."

Africa's challenge

Boko said is the biggest problems facing Africa were the corruption and plutocracy of sections of its leadership.

"There is a predatory conspiracy between the business moguls and elites with the political elites. We need to break that partnership by reenergizing the democracy in each country so that the people themselves directly demand accountability from business and government to break this symbiotic relationship."

He added: "We cannot blame those who come from outside when it is us who invite them, encourage them and are in league with them to exploit and plunder our countries".

The forgotten youth

Noting that the majority of people in the SADC Region were young people, Boko said parliamentarians were not doing enough to engage the youths in the region's socioeconomic affairs.

"We are not engaging young people enough. Fortunately, young people are proving to be a very informed, very organized and connected group of people. They have moved from the traditional media. They are now using social media and harnessing the potency of the information superhighway."

Digital natives

Boko said young people were more able to access information and understand the realities that surround them and to demand answers.

"Young people lack the patience of their old folks. They want answers not today but yesterday. If our leaders are serious about addressing issues, they have no choice but to engage with the young people and to listen to them. If they don't, young people will remove them from power."

Delegates at the 39th Plenary Assembly Session of the SADC Parliamentary Forum in Swaziland. Photos: Moses Magadza

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