Recently, Labour Members of the European Parliament voiced concern over the human rights situation in Swaziland. Describing the current climate as “deteriorating” and “deplorable,” the MEPs urged the European Union to reconsider its preferential trade agreement with the Swazi government, arguing that its disregard for human rights should serve as a “wakeup call” to policymakers in the region.
That disregard is profound. Swaziland may not garner international headlines, but its record on human rights is deplorable. Behind a façade of seemingly orderly elections and a constitution that guarantees freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, the continent’s last absolute monarch, King Mswati III, holds all the power— power that he has wielded with callous impunity.
Criticism of the royal family is forbidden. Labor and human rights groups cannot legally register. Political parties are banned and pro-democracy activists are charged as terrorists. Judges serve at the whim of King Mswati, resulting in a farcical judiciary that has never fully upheld a basic human right in its history.
The corrupt workings of Swaziland’s courts were on full display last year during the trial of lawyer Thulani Maseko and editor Bheki Makhubu, who dared to publish an article criticizing the nation’s failure to establish an independent judiciary. After legal proceedings that in no way offered the defendants due process, Maseko and Makhubu were jailed for their criticisms; as of today, both men have spent more than a year in prison. Maseko has spent a portion of that time in solitary confinement.
A delegation that included Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights traveled to Swaziland last year to observe a bail hearing for Maseko and Makhubu. This hearing, too, was highly irregular, and our representatives registered serious concerns about the clear lack of independence and impartiality of the proceedings.
Despite the international outcry that met the persecution of both Maseko and Makhubu, King Mswati only accelerated his crackdown on civil society. Several weeks ago, authorities violently dispersed a Trade Union Congress of Swaziland meeting, and later broke up a gathering of the Swaziland National Association of Teachers. During both attacks, heavily armed riot police were reported to have beaten union members, forcing several to seek medical treatment thereafter. A widely respected union activist was quoted afterward as saying, “The police came in as if they were coming to fight an army.”
Swaziland suffers from the world's highest rate of HIV-infected adults; thirty percent of Swazis are medically diagnosed as malnourished; and sixty percent of Swazis live below the national poverty line. In the midst of this crisis, King Mswati continues to live a lavish life that all but mocks his subjects. Just recently, he bought a $30 million private jet, his second, after his first was impounded by Canada. Documents recently made public seem to suggest the plane was purchased with money intended for public use.
The situation in Swaziland is dire, and such brazen disregard for human rights cannot go unpunished. The MEP’s proposal to attach human rights conditions to preferential trade arrangements, including in Swaziland, would help demonstrate to King Mswati that he will be held accountable for his actions.
There is a strong basis for the EU to do so. For example, Article 8 of the Cotonou Agreement -- a development pact between the EU and the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of states -- requires that member nations demonstrate clear progress towards respect for human rights and good governance. EUpolicymakers could show international leadership by considering this and other similar benchmarks to revoke Swaziland’s preferential status if it continually fails to meet universally accepted standards. Of course, any potential trade sanction should be carefully crafted so as to ensure Swaziland’s most vulnerable citizens are not negatively affected.
Just as important, the case of Swaziland offers an opportunity to demonstrate the EU’s long-established commitment to upholding international human rights norms. To date, the Swazi government has repeatedly called the international community’s bluff. King Mswati continues to make, and then break, promises to reform. He has faced zero consequences for doing so. By revoking Swaziland’s preferential trade status, the European Union would send a strong and unequivocal message that his days of acting with impunity are over.
Frank LaRue is the Director of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Europe and was UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression from 2008-2014