Month: May 2020

Happy Africa Unity Day: Silencing the gun, defeating COVID-19 and protecting human rights defenders

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.

SAHRDN calls for the immediate and unconditional release of detained Journalists in Zimbabwe

The Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network (SAHRDN or the Defenders Network) calls for the immediate and unconditional release of the two public interest journalists Frank Chikowore and Samuel Takawira who were arrested on May 21, 2020. The journalists appeared before the Harare magistrate courts on March 23, and were formally charged with breaking the country’s COVID-19 lockdown regulations.  They were remanded in custody pending the bail hearing on May 26, 2020. According to the court papers, the  journalists allegedly committed a crime when they attempted to interview the three female youth leaders of the Movement for Democratic Change – Alliance who are being treated for injuries sustained after being abducted, tortured and sexually assaulted by suspected security agents. The three young female leaders Cecilia Revai Chimbiri, Netsai Marova and Joana Mamombe who is a Member of Parliament were disappeared on May 13, 2020 and rescued on May 15, 2020.

The SAHRDN is gravely concerned and disturbed by the increasing cases of journalists being harassed, tortured or arrested while carrying out their legitimate work. Since late March 2020, when the government of Zimbabwe imposed a national lockdown to contain SARS-Cov-2, a virus that causes COVID-19, rights groups in Zimbabwe have recorded 14 cases of harassment of journalists and nearly 300 cases of citizen assaults by Zimbabwean authorities. Amongst the notable cases recorded included  the cases of Ntombizodwa and Nokuthula Mpofu who were left for dead after being brutally attacked by the police in Bulawayo for allegedly violating lockdown regulations on April 16, 2020 . The police officers responsible have been arraigned before the courts. On April 13, 2020, a freelance journalist, James Jemwa was temporarily detained at a police station in Mufakose High-density suburb by soldiers and police officers and forced to delete the footage he had recorded at Gwenyambira shops, Harare. Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) Commissioner General Godwin Matanga went on to say that “the journalists, who have been exempted, are those from [public] broadcasting services. It is clear that the first applicant is not from any of the exempted journalists. All other journalists remain bound by the lockdown and must remain indoors.”

 “Democracy dies in darkness. The Harare administration should not use the dark cloud of COVID-19 pandemic to abuse human rights and suffocate the civic space for public interest journalists. Freedom of expression and a free media are essential components in democratic societies. Sections 61 and 62 of the Zimbabwe Constitution are explicit in their guarantees on access to information and media freedom. Media freedom should not be questionable in any way, but defended at all costs” said Washington Katema, the Regional Programmes Manager at the SAHRDN.

“In light of government’s decision to fully investigate the abduction case of three young women human rights defenders, we affirm that  public interest journalists give a voice to citizens, and should be allowed to operate without fear or favour, expose misinformation and disinformation, to effectively contribute to justice, transparency  and accountable governance system in Zimbabwe and beyond. Freedom of the media and freedom of expression are not just fundamental human rights, they are also critical enablers of human development and human security” Katema added.

Zimbabwe took part in the World Press Freedom day celebrations earlier this month under the global theme  “Journalism without fear or favour”. Minister Mutsvangwa said Government was committed to ensuring a safe working environment for media personnel. “It is, therefore, important that their ability to carry out this task is not tampered with,” she said. The arrest and detention of journalists contradicts governments position on Press Freedom. It is important that the government of Zimbabwe moves from rhetoric to practice what is says.

Zimbabwe is party to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, both which guarantee the right to freedom of expression. In addition, the right to free expression, encompassing freedom of speech and the press, is constitutionally protected in Zimbabwe, even under the lockdown period.

The SAHRDN, therefore urges the government of Zimbabwe to respect human rights and protect human rights defenders, including public interest journalists.


“Standing with public interest journalists during  COVID-19 global crisis”

For more information please contact Washington Katema, Regional Programmes Manager at or +27 73 620 2608


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.

Gender-based violence

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)

Amnesty International


Issue No: 6 18 – 22 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

There is mounting evidence showing that governments in southern Africa are increasingly cracking down on dissent by using excessive force to suppress public criticism of their failure to protect human rights, especially the rights of the poor and economically vulnerable during the Covid-19 lockdown measures.

The scale of police brutality has prompted us to release this follow-up article on the impact of lockdown measures on human rights and other forms of democracy, including the right to protest or demonstrate.

On 1 May 2020, we published an article focusing on this, titled Is Covid-19 in danger of killing electoral democracy in southern Africa, exploring how southern African countries are responding to the dual objectives of ensuring that measures to protect people from the pandemic do not negatively affect human rights and the strengthening of electoral democracy.

Immediately after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared Covid-19 a global pandemic on 11 March, frightened and insecure citizens were willing to accept strong central government reaction to protect them from Covid-19, including restrictions on some of their usual rights for the common good.

Virtually all governments across the region took drastic measures through lockdowns supported by emergency or state of disaster legal frameworks.

When these lockdowns came into force it became obvious that they had not been thought through properly, were disproportionately affecting the poor and economically vulnerable, and had magnified existing inequalities and economic injustices and, above all, had resulted in police brutality.

Critics argued that several fundamental human rights are being violated in southern Africa including the freedom and security of persons, of expression, of movement and residence, rights to privacy and access to information, among others.

The disproportionate impact of the Covid-19 measures on the poor demonstrated that civil and political rights are as important as economic and social rights and are mutually reinforcing. The poor, who were forced to go out of their homes to look for food and livelihood, were the ones who came face to face with the might of the police and army.

For example, in a response to a 5 May 2020 Judicial Inspectorate on Correctional Services (JICS) visit to a Johannesburg Correctional facility, Arthur Fraser, the National Commissioner of Correctional Services, conceded that the awaiting-trial prisons were overstretched by more than 100% of their holding capacity and that some of the overcrowding is directly attributable to the arbitrary arrests and detentions that have increased as a result of the security services enforcing the Covid-19 lockdown measures.

Police brutality in Zimbabwe

Thus it is that basic human rights are being undermined under the guise of tackling the pandemic.

Democracy and public participation are put in peril. An example of the authorisation of the use of force in the lockdown regulatory framework is Malawi’s declaration of a 30-day state of disaster that allows national security apparatus to enforce the restrictions on gatherings.

Malawi heads to the polls in less than two months in afresh presidential election following the annulment of the 2019 election by the country’s constitutional court.

Despite the risks associated with Covid-19, the country’s presidential campaign is in full swing. From public meetings, publicity caravans and door-to-door visits – the electoral frenzy crosses the country, as if the novel coronavirus pandemic did not exist.

Some members of the opposition are questioning the existence of Covid-19 insisting that the infection figures are just a political ploy by the government “to stop the election from happening”. The Health Ministry principal secretary, Dan Namarika, has raised concern that the huge political gatherings defeat the fight against the pandemic, while the WHO has urged politicians to ensure that social distancing is observed and encouraged them to issue free masks to rally attendees.

Similar provisions are being abused in South Africa and Zimbabwe.

On 12 May, the Zimbabwe Republic Police reportedly pounced on a flash demonstration organised by the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) Alliance youth leaders in Warren Park, Harare, and arrested three young female leaders, Joana Mamombe, Netsai Marova and Cecilia Chimbiri. Joana Mamombe is the female youngest Member of Parliament in the current Zimbabwe Parliament.

The protest was against the government’s failure to put in place necessary social safety nets for the poor and vulnerable citizens.

Initial efforts to locate the trio by Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights were futile. Then, as described by Zimbabwean activist Thandekile Moyo, it emerged that state security agents who released them more than 24 hours later had abducted them. The trio revealed gory details of the torture and sexual abuse they suffered at the hands of the state security agents including gun barrels being shoved into their private parts.

Why only young female leaders were picked after the demonstration remains a mystery but also highlights the additional dangers women activists face on a daily basis in southern Africa.

The sadistic and complicit nature of the Zimbabwe authorities and seeming acquiescence with the abduction and torture was betrayed by a tweet that the Deputy Minister of Information, Energy Mutodi, wrote on 20 May, saying:

“… details emerge MDC youths Joana Mamombe, Netsai Marova & Cecilia Chimbiri went out for a romantic night to Bindura with their lovers who are artisanal miners. They parked their car at a police station for safety but tragedy struck when they demanded foreign currency for services”.

It is difficult to imagine how a government minister can be this callous. Then, as if this was not enough, Zimbabwe’s Minister of Justice Ziyambi Ziyambi has threatened to prosecute the three female opposition members, sensationally alleging, “I don’t believe the abduction is genuine.”DISPLAY ADVERTS

Political analysts have dismissed attempts by the government to deny their involvement. Dr Alex Magaisa, a prominent lawyer and constitutional expert, said

“For the state to turn back and deny that the three women were not in its custody is not only false but disingenuous and dishonest… The fact that the three women were subjected to torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment while in the hands of the state is a severe indictment on the Zimbabwean government.”

As if to add salt to injury, on 16 May after their release President Emmerson Mnangagwa announced that “Zimbabwe will, therefore, continue on the Level 2 lockdown for an indefinite period. We shall have regular two-week interval reviews to assess progress or lack of it.”

In response, leader of the MDC Alliance, Nelson Chamisa, accused President Mnangagwa, having this to say:

“Without consultation with us all, the indefinite extension of the lockdown opens a treacherous avenue to arbitrary rule. It indefinitely suspends the exercise of civil and political rights which are necessary checks and balances on the excesses of governmental power.”

On 21 May President Emmerson Mnangagwa further condemned protests, saying, “We must never endanger the lives of our people through illegal, reckless and unwarranted demonstrations for political grandstanding. We are one people, one nation, one Zimbabwe.”

The manipulation of Covid-19 lockdown measures to achieve political outcomes is therefore manifest in Zimbabwe.

On 18 April, the Centre for Innovation and Technology (CITE) reported that two women from Cowdray Park in Bulawayo were brutally assaulted, handcuffed, arrested and detained overnight for allegedly breaching lockdown regulations. The women, who sustained terrible injuries, insisted that they had done nothing wrong as they had only gone to a local supermarket to buy food. The case is currently being heard at the Western Commonage Magistrate’s Court.

According to CITE, over 25,000 people have so far been arrested across the country for allegedly flouting lockdown rules.

The Zimbabwean government is notorious for using violence against civil society and members of the opposition. Despite President Mnangagwa being the chair of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) organ on Politics, Defence and Security, and widespread local and international condemnation, it continues unabated. All this raises concern that a lasting effect of the Covid-19 pandemic could be a consolidation of authoritarianism, with possible dire effects on the future of participatory democracy in the era of Covid-19 and beyond.

Arbitrary arrests in South Africa

In South Africa, the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID), which monitors police abuse, has reportedly registered 39 complaints against police wrongdoing, with six incidents of “death as a result of police action” during the first week of the lockdown, and is investigating 13 complaints related to police shooting and 14 of police assault.

On 18 May, the Committee to Protect Journalists called on authorities in South Africa to conduct a swift investigation into the beating of journalist Paul Nthoba by police from Ficksburg police station after he took photos during Covid-19 operations. This type of brave reporting by journalists is vital because, according to Democracy Works Foundation, more people died from police and military heavy handedness than from the coronavirus itself in the first few days of the lockdown.

In one province alone, the Eastern Cape, 18,465 people have been charged for having contravened the lockdown regulations.

A number of videos have circulated showing the police and army assaulting people.

In Hillbrow in the Johannesburg inner city, police sjambokked people for allegedly defying lockdown rules, while in Soweto, soldiers have forced people to do push-ups. One policeman has been arrested for the killing of a citizen who was shot dead by police after following the man from a bar to his house.

Police arrests are having an impact on overcrowding in prisons.

A JICS report, dated 8 May 2020, following a prison inspection done on 5 May 2020 in Johannesburg shows a link between police arbitrary arrests and detentions of poor and economically vulnerable people.

The report states:

“Nationally, while the percentage of sentenced inmates has reduced since 2018, the number of remand detainees has risen by 4.93% over each of the last two years. This figure has been worsened by the current Covid-19 lockdown. From 1-30 April the total DCS remand detainee population across all regions increased by 5,319. A total of 4,025 detainees (73.82% of all detainees detained with the option of bail) are unable to pay a fine of R1,000 or less. This problem has been exacerbated by the fines issued for violating lockdown regulations.”

Human rights activists on trial in Eswatini, Mozambique

A piece of good news came from Eswatini after Goodwill Sibiya was released from jail following one year in detention awaiting trial for challenging the Eswatini government in court papers in May 2019.

The legal challenge resulted in him facing sedition charges and being accused or belonging to “terrorist groups”. The prosecution withdrew sedition charges in a case where Sibiya was represented by esteemed human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko who himself spent two years in jail before his trial was quashed in 2016.

That a person could spend one year in jail without trial shows how the legal system in Eswatini has been weaponised against legitimate opponents and as a threat to civic space.

Such is the scale of judicial persecution in Eswatini that the Committee to Protect Journalists called on the police “to stop intimidating and harassing local journalists for reporting critically about King Mswati III” and to allow journalists “to write freely without the threat of treason charges” for writing about government response to Covid-19.

Mozambique: The much anticipated trial of members of a special elite police force that gunned down a human rights defender in broad daylight during elections in Nov 2019 started on 12 May in Gaza Mozambique.

The police hit squad members were only arrested because “local police, apparently unaware of their identity” and mission gave chase causing the killers to crash into other cars.

Despite the police brutality in enforcing Covid-19 measures in Mozambique, this passes as a good development given that the scourge of impunity for serious crimes and human rights violations is part of the national reality.

Leading human rights activists Professor Adriano Nuvunga’s Centre for Development and Democracy (CDD) exclaimed that “the long struggle to hold the state accountable has begun”.

Despite the police heavy handedness in implementing the Covid-19 measures CDD sees an opportunity for young people to “wrest away a seat at the decision-making table in this country… The pandemic of Covid-19 is the greatest opportunity for young people to show their true character, unleash their innovative skills, rally the power behind their numbers, display their physical energy, and take centre-stage in the fight against this pandemic, and win themselves permanent seats in decision-making forums all across the country.”

The one area that has remained of serious concern in terms of the climate of lockdown from access by human rights defenders, civil society and journalists is the northern province of Cabo Delgado where there are gas and oil discoveries. An insurgency is happening there but the government has completely sealed the area from access for information to be gathered and disseminated.

Such is the situation that “17 civil society groups sent a joint letter to Mozambican President Filipe Jacinto Nyusi “expressing concern about the deteriorating human rights situation in northern Cabo Delgado province, including the enforced disappearance of radio journalist Ibraimo Abú Mbaruco”.

Suppressing freedom of expression and the media in Zambia and Tanzania:

After the closure of independent news channels such as the Post and Prime Television civil society is now relying on social media to gather and exchange news.

Laura Miti, a leading human rights defender, tweeted that there was a riot by residents of Nakonde on 20 May and the response by the Muchinga Police Chief was that a political party “manipulated residents of Nakonde to riot yesterday in order to frustrate the valiant efforts to fight Covid”.DISPLAY ADVERTS

According to the Diamond TV Facebook page, nine people were arrested and detained “in connection with the riots that happened over the lockdown amid the coronavirus. The residents staged protests claiming that they are hunger stricken due to the lockdown. One protester was shot and is admitted to Nakonde General Hospital.”

There was a furore when cadres of the ruling Patriotic Front were accused of invading radio stations that are giving coverage to the opposition UPND leader, Hakainde Hichilema. When confronted as to whether these disruptions were part of state policy, Dora Siliya, the government chief spokesperson, said on 19 May, “Just like we do not want PF cadres to break the law against Chinsali and Mupika radio, we also don’t want media houses to break the law.”

According to Laura Miti the following radio stations have been disrupted by Patriotic Front cadres during this Covid-19 period: Feel Free radio station, Power FM, 5FM radio, Muchinga Radio, Radio Maria.

This systematic and sustained attack on free media shows that the militias who religiously carry out these attacks act with the acquiescence of the state are now preventing anyone who questions the government’s measures on Covid-19 under the guise of concern about the spread of the virus.

Tanzania: President of Tanzania John Magufuli is notorious for clamping down on civic space and human rights defenders; the current detention of Tito Magoti continues to demonstrate the weaponisation of the law in that country.

Attacks on journalists also continue.

The Tanzania Human Rights Defenders Coalition (THRDC) reports that two Kenyan journalists, Muthathia Shadrack Kareria and Clifton Isindu, were arrested in the “no man’s land” at Namanga, and subsequently detained at Longido Police Station, Arusha Region, Tanzania on Saturday 16 May 2020, allegedly for interviewing people about the status of Covid-19. On 19 May both were convicted and sentenced by the Magistrates’ Court in Arusha to pay a fine amounting to two million Tanzanian shillings or three years’ imprisonment.

They paid the fine and were deported to Kenya. The two journalists work with Elimu TV, an educational digital television station in Kenya, which has a sub office at the Namanga border of Kenya and Tanzania.

The needless arrest and detention of people in Tanzania, creating more dangers of exposure to Covid-19, resulted in a civil society joint letter by 20 civil society organisations demanding immediate and urgent measures to protect the rights of prison detainees in Tanzania.

Conclusion: Limited oversight mechanisms

The lockdown restrictions imposed throughout the region appear to have been successful so far in achieving their purpose of containing the spread of Covid-19.

Yet most African governments have also been accused of abusing the pandemic as an excuse to cling to power, prevent dissent, and violate people’s rights to free expression, privacy, and access to information. Legislators and judiciaries have failed to oversee and check executive actions.

Across the region, security forces have consistently disregarded the United Nations (UN) Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials. Southern African governments also have legal obligations, which they are ignoring, under several international and African human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR).

Instead, the lockdown measures have been a perfect and convenient tool by authorities to harass political opponents, clamp down on civil society and abuse the rights of citizens.

These actions have tended to worsen with the subsequent extensions of states of emergency or disaster. Bereft of any capacity to assist even the most vulnerable with food, authorities have no other response to the serious questions that people are asking and are thus responding with brute force.

With the rest of the world concentrating on their own domestic issues arising out of the pandemic, southern African governments seem to be banking on this lack of attention to consolidate their power by closing the already limited democratic space.

The concerns we raise reinforce the remarks by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, that: “Emergency powers should not be a weapon government can wield to quash dissent, control the population, and even perpetuate their time in power. They should be used to cope effectively with the pandemic – nothing more, nothing less.” 

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.


To His Excellency Omar Marwan, Egyptian Minister of Justice:

We, the undersigned, call for an open and transparent investigation into the jailing and death of Shady Habash, a 24-year-old filmmaker who died in custody earlier this month. Furthermore, we call on you to immediately release all artists and writers in pre-trial detention for merely exercising their fundamental right to freedom of expression.

Habash died while being held in the maximum-security Tora Prison on May 2, 2020. Arrested in March 2018, he had been in pre-trial detention for 793 days, despite the fact that Egyptian law only allows a maximum of two years’ pre-trial detention. Such detention is meant to be an exceptional measure of last resort to hold suspected criminals that authorities believe pose an imminent threat if released. All Habash did was direct a music video. His case never went to trial, nor was he charged with a crime.

The public prosecutor issued a statement on May 5 claiming that Habash died from drinking sanitizing alcohol, thinking it was water, and a state autopsy report on May 11 allegedly confirmed the cause of death as alcohol poisoning. Such reports have several apparent inconsistencies, including whether Habash knew he was drinking alcohol and when—or if—doctors decided to transfer him to an external hospital. Even if the reports are taken at face value, Tora Prison officials were apparently medically negligent in their lack of response. Habash’s fellow inmates reportedly yelled and made noise from their cell for hours while Habash was dying, to no avail. Habash’s family deserves the truth about the circumstances surrounding his death––and why he was illegally detained in the first place––which can only be achieved through a thorough and proper investigation.

Habash was one of eight people who were detained in March 2018 for their reported involvement in exiled musician Ramy Essam’s song, “Balaha,” which criticized the Egyptian government and was released in February 2018 on YouTube. However, Habash played no role in developing the song’s content and only directed the accompanying music video. We remain seriously concerned about the continued pre-trial detention of Mustafa Gamal, who merely verified Ramy Essam’s Facebook page, and Galal El-Behairy, who penned the lyrics to “Balaha” and remains behind bars, serving a three-year sentence.

It is our contention that these arrests were a grave infringement of freedom of expression, contrary to both international and Egyptian law. But these are not the only cases that––we fear––represent deepening repression of free expression and artistic freedom in Egypt. In recent years, we have seen a disturbing trend in the number of artists, journalists, and writers held in pre-trial detention in Egypt for expressing their views, including:

  • Alaa Abdel Fattah, a 38-year-old blogger and activist detained in September 2019––after a number of past arrests––who remains in pre-trial detention today without charge. He is currently on a hunger strike to protest prison conditions, raising serious concerns about his well-being (UPDATE: Fattah recently suspended his 36-day hunger strike).
  • Solafa Magdy, a 33-year-old freelance reporter arrested in November 2019 who remains in pre-trial detention today without charge, alongside her husband, journalist Hossam el-Sayyad.
  • Shady Abouzeid, a 27-year-old satirist, video blogger, and former television personality, who is currently in pre-trial detention without charge.

While we also understand that your office is taking strides to ensure public health in the face of the COVID-19 crisis, the pandemic does not justify the suspension of fair trial guarantees––as both the World Health Organization and Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights have affirmed. In fact, there is a profound public health argument toward releasing pre-trial detainees simply to lower the rate of coronavirus transmission in prison.

Habash’s case has sent a heartbreakingly clear message to artists and writers throughout Egypt: Independent expression may lead to years-long illegal detention, and even death, in custody.

Your Excellency, we strongly urge you to release all artists and writers currently held in pre-trial detention for merely exercising their right to freedom of expression, especially in light of COVID-19, which now ravages prisons around the world. Likewise, we demand a proper investigation into Shady Habash’s death and illegal detention. If he had been set free, he would still be with us today.


Africa Human Rights Network (AHRN)
Aid A – Aid for Artist in Exile
Arterial Network
Artistic Freedom Initiative (AFI)
Artist Protection Fund
Artists at Risk (AR)
Art Moves Africa
Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE)
Avant-Garde Lawyers (AGL)
Belady U.S.: An Island for Humanity
Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS)
Cartoonists Rights Network International (CRNI)
Danish PEN
Danish Film Directors
Der Bundesverband Regie (BVR)
Directors Guild of Flanders | Unie van Regisseurs
Directors Guild of Norway
Documentarist ıstanbul Documentary Days
Dutch Directors Guild
English PEN
European Film Academy
European Music Council
Festival international Signes de Nuit
Hamburger Stiftung für politisch Verfolgte | Hamburg Foundation for Politically Persecuted Persons
Hammerl Arts Rights Transfer (HART)
Humanists International
Human Rights Film Network (HRFN)
Index on Censorship
International Arts Rights Advisors (IARA)
International Documentary Association (IDA)
International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam (IDFA)
International Film Festival and Forum on Human Rights (FIFDH)
International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR)
International Theatre Institute: Action committee for Artists Right
Ithaca City of Asylum
MENA Rights Group
Movies that Matter
National Association of Film Authors (ANAC)
Nhimbe Trust
On the Move (OTM)
PEN America
PEN Georgia
PEN Lebanon
PEN International
PEN Nigeria
PEN Uganda
Res Artis
Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights
Safe Havens – the Malmö Meetings
Société des Réalisateurs de Films (SRF)
Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network (SAHRDN)*
Sundance Institute
Swedish PEN
Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP)
The Federation of European Film Directors (FERA)
The Federation of European Screenwriters (FSE)
The Museum of Movements*
Volksbühne Basel
Which Human Rights? Film Festival

Tanzania: Joint CSO letter to Tanzanian President to de-congest prisons and protect rights of detainees

His Excellency

President John Pombe Magufuli United Republic of Tanzania Dar es Salaam Tanzania

May 20, 2020

Your Excellency,

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:

  1. 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;
  2. 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;
  3. 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.
  4. 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.


  1. Amnesty International
  2. Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition (Zimbabwe)
  3. Anti-Corruption Trust of Southern Africa (ACT-SA) (Zambia)
  4. CIVICUS. (South Africa)
  5. Counselling Services Unit (CSU) (Zimbabwe)
  6. Crime prevention, Rehabilitation and Reintegration of ex-prisoners (CRROA). (Lesotho)
  7. EG Justice
  8. Friends of Angola (FoA) (Angola)
  9. Human Rights Institute of South Africa (HURISA) (South Africa)
  10. Human Rights Watch
  11. Institute for Public Policy Analysis and Implementation (IPPAI.) (Zimbabwe)
  12. Lawyers for Human Rights. (LHR) (South Africa)
  13. Legal and Human Rights Centre (Tanzania)
  14. Malawi Network of Religious Leaders Living with or Personally Affected by HIV (MANERELA+). (Malawi)
  15. Oasis Network for Community Transformation.
  16. Robert F Kennedy Human Rights (RFK)
  17. Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network (SAHRDN)
  18. Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC) (South Africa)
  19. Southern Africa Network Against Corruption (SANAC). (Zambia)
  20. 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

Angola: Open Letter of concern on members of civil society and religious body facing death threats and intimidation in the Cuando Cubango province


His Excellency João Manuel Gonçalves Lourenço
President of the Republic of Angola

CC: Mr. Francisco Manuel Monteiro Queiroz, Minister of Justice and Human Rights

CC: Mr. Eugênio César Laborinho, Minister of Interior

CC: Mr. Júlio Marcelino Vieira Bessa, Governor of Cuando Cubando Province

19 May 2020

Your Excellency,

RE: Open Letter of concern on members of civil society and religious body facing death threats and intimidation in the Cuando Cubango province

We, the undersigned civil society organizations, write to express our concern with reports of continuing harassment, intimidations and arbitrary detention of human rights defenders in the Cuando Cubango province, namely the members of the non-governmental organization Mission of Beneficence Agriculture of Kubando, Inclusive Technologies and Environment (MBAKITA). In Cuando Cubango, members of civil society who act for the defence and promotion of the rights of ethnic minorities and raise concerns regarding the occupation of Indigenous people and traditional communities’ lands have become the target of acts of intimidation, harassment, death threats, assaults and suspicious deaths.

Assault at workplace and home

MBAKITA and its members have been under increasing surveillance since the beginning of 2019. They have suffered several assaults at the hands of local authorities for their work defending the rights of ethnic minorities. MBAKITA has been involved in this work for over 18 years.

Unidentified armed men broke into the house of Pascoal Baptistiny, executive director of MBAKITA, on 17 April, 23 April, 11, 12 and 13 May. On these occasions, the men entered into Pascoal Baptistiny’s home, tied the hands of the two security guards and took several items of electronic equipment, including three computers, a video camera, memory cards and cell phones. On 15 April 2020, Amnesty International published a complaint about the physical assault and arbitrary detention of nine MBAKITA activists during a COVID-19 prevention campaign in the province of Cuando Cubango. The following day, Pascoal Baptistiny, executive director of MBAKITA, received an anonymous call with the message: “We know the vehicle that has been travelling to the communities, and we will cut your legs”. On the evening of 16 April, the association’s car was vandalized and immobilized, making it almost impossible for MBAKITA members to travel to the communities. On 17 April, at about 1:30 am, three masked and armed men entered into Mr Pascoal’s home in Menongue city, the provincial capital. They immobilized the two security guards at his residence and took two computers, a video camera, memory cards and cell phones.

This break-in was not the first attack against MBAKITA. In 2018 and 2019, MBAKITA’s office was broken into by unidentified men who took ten computers, two cameras and six memory cards. The office’s training and research room is now dismantled with limited working capacity due to the lack of equipment.

On the night of 28 April 2020, three unidentified men broke into radio ecclesia, a Catholic radio station, and vandalized the broadcast equipment. The catholic radio was unable to broadcast independent news between 29 and 30 April 2020.

Arbitrary detentions and ill-treatment

On 9 April 2020, police officers used batons to beat up two MBAKITA activists, who were on their way to the organization’s office to collect COVID-19 prevention materials. We have concerns that the activists were targeted solely because of their affiliation to MBAKITA and its work.

On 2 April 2020, around 11:00 am, nine MBAKITA activists who distributed information about Covid-19 and protection products to the San indigenous population and traditional communities in the rural area of Menongue, Mavinga, Cuito and Rivungo municipalities of the province of Cuando Cubango, were attacked by the police with batons and threatened with firearms. They were arrested and released eight hours later without charges.

Intimidation and harassment

MBAKITA activists regularly receive death threats through anonymous phone calls as a result of their work to defend the rights of ethnic minorities and denounce corruption in the region. For instance, in 2019, MBAKITA released information on the alleged diversion of funding that should have been used to assist Indigenous peoples and traditional communities impacted by the drought. Following this, the activists began to receive an increasing number of death threats through anonymous phone calls.

The callers issued warnings to the recipients: “We know Mr. Pascoal … if you continue to report on San people’s issues, you and your family may disappear”; “The office will be raided and you won’t be able to do anything about it, so don’t waste your time reporting to the police”; “Stop this or you will die and your family too”; “The Indigenous community does not need any saviour”.

Following the break-in into Mr Pascoal’s home on 17 April, several MBAKITA activists reported receiving intimidating anonymous calls ordering them to stop working for the organization. As a result, five activists stopped working for the organization for fear of their lives.

Suspicious death of a human rights defender

In May 2019, Father Domingos Paulo Kasanga, commonly known as Caridoso, died of a heart attack. His colleagues suspect he was a victim of poisoning, because days before his death he had celebrated the Easter Mass, during which he criticized the government for the deplorable living conditions of San communities in Angola. After the Mass, Father Kasanga received an anonymous phone call in which the caller told him: “You will die in 72 hours”. Father Kasanga informed his colleagues about the call, and three days later, he was found dead. No autopsy was conducted. Fearing further intimidation, his colleagues preferred not to report the suspicious circumstances of his death and threats he had received. There has been no investigation into his death, including if he might have been targeted for his human rights work.

The increasing intimidation, harassment and attacks of human rights defenders in Cuando Cubango is aimed at preventing them from carrying their work. This situation is particularly concerning in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, as humanitarian relief and viral prevention awareness campaigns provided by MBAKITA [and other civil society organizations] are essential to ensure the safety of the more marginalized and isolated communities.

We are concerned with the recurrent intimidation, threats and criminalization of those who, through peaceful and legitimate human rights work, seek to provide assistance to Indigenous peoples and traditional communities. The authorities have an obligation to effectively address threats, attacks, harassment and intimidation against human rights defenders, including, where applicable, by thoroughly, promptly and independently investigating human rights violations against them and bringing the suspected perpetrators to justice in fair trials.

In this period of a global pandemic, the collaboration between civil society and government can benefit those communities at the receiving end of joint actions and should, thus, be encouraged and facilitated. It is in the interest of states and society at large to recognise, protect and enable human rights defenders to carry out their crucial work so that the harshest impact of the crisis can be mitigated and ensure that no one is left behind.

Therefore, we urge you to take all the appropriate measures to ensure that Mr Pascoal Batistiny and other MBAKITA activists are provided with adequate protection so that they can continue their work freely and without fear of reprisals. We also urge you to ensure that authorities promptly carry out an independent and impartial investigation into the attacks, assaults, death threats and intimidation against Rádio Ecclésia, Mr Pascoal Baptistiny and MBAKITA activists. We further urge you to ensure a safe and enabling environment for human rights defenders, allowing them to peacefully continue to carry out their human rights work.
We thank you for your attention on this crucial matter.

Yours sincerely,

Amnesty International
Centro Democracia e Desenvolvimento (CDD)
FIDH, in the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders
Friends of Angola
Solidariedade Moçambique (SOLDMOZ-ADS)
Southern African Human Rights Defenders Network
Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC)
World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), in the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders


Issue No: 5 11 -15 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

Prisons and places of detention are now seen as the perfect breeding ground for Covid-19. Prisons and places of detention or quarantine generally lack adequate medical care, are overcrowded and unhygienic. They have insufficient space to allow for physical distancing.

Access to water and proper drainage facilities and refuse removal are not guaranteed in many prisons or places of detention, yet washing of hands and general hygiene are key ingredients to the fight against the spread of Covid-19.

Calling for decongestion of prisons, which inevitably means calling for the release of some prisoners, is an emotive subject as public sympathy for detained people is generally low. Southern Africa is not spared this generalisation.

In South Africa, prison overcrowding stood at 37% in March 2019 with 162,875 detainees for just 118,572 bed spaces, while Zimbabwe had over  20,000 inmates against a capacity of 17, 000.

The systemic neglect of prisons and other places of detention in many southern African countries has resulted in inadequate resources, management, oversight and accountability mechanisms, including ill-equipped personnel and limited linkages to public health systems.

In addition, the prison population is distinguished by an over-representation of HIV and tuberculosis compared to the rest of the population. Prisons and detention facilities place the lives of prisoners and detainees, prison staff, lawyers and court officials at direct risk while pausing an indirect risk to the public as prisons become society’s breeding ground for communicable and infectious diseases.

That makes prisons and places of detention is everybody’s business.

Because of the particular vulnerability of detained persons during the Covid-19 period, the United Nations (UN), Rights Groups and Health Experts have encouraged governments to consider releasing their most at-risk inmates, particularly pregnant women, the elderly, people with disabilities and those with underlying conditions such as tuberculosis (TB) and HIV.

“The fact that prisons are high-risk places for transmission of Covid-19” caused over 37 Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) operating in Africa to issue a joint declaration 24 March 2020, calling on African Union member states and international human rights organisations to take urgent and immediate measures to protect the rights of detainees in Africa.

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 UN human rights spokesman Rupert Colville has recommended that prisoners at high-risk of infection should be released immediately. He added that those that are being held illegally should be released immediately. They include political prisoners and those detained for critical, dissenting views, such as journalists and human rights defenders.

Article 16 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights provides that “every individual shall have the right to enjoy the best attainable state of physical and mental health,” in line with international human rights law.

These rights were extended to prisoners and detainees when the African Commission adopted the 1995 Resolution on Prisons in Africa. It follows therefore that when a state deprives someone of their liberty, it takes on the duty of care to provide medical treatment and to protect and promote his or her physical and mental health and well-being, as laid out by the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (Nelson Mandela Rules).

As prisons in southern Africa are slowly becoming  “factories” for production of Covid-19 and other infectious and communicable diseases, calls for release of detainees and prisoners have escalated over the last couple of months. Protests have also erupted among prisoners.

Recently, southern African governments have started a process of releasing some prisoners. The releases have been done mainly through amnesties granted under presidential pardon prerogatives contained in the laws of most jurisdictions.

Zimbabwe: On 1 April, Zimbabwe released 1,680 inmates from various prisons across the country under a presidential amnesty that was gazetted in March. These included those not found guilty of the specified offences that generally cover crimes of violence, particularly women prisoners who have served at least half their effective sentence; juvenile prisoners who have served a third; those sentenced to 36 months or less who have served half of their sentences; and those over 70 who have served half of their sentences.

Offenders excluded from the amnesty included those convicted of murder, treason, rape or any sexual offence, carjacking, robbery, stock theft and public violence, plus any conspiracy, incitement or attempt to commit these crimes or being an accessory after the fact to these crimes.

Having realised that the amnesty did not result in adequate decongestion of prisons in the country, the government granted amnesty to an additional 2,528 prisoners on 5 May under the amended amnesty proclaimed by President Emmerson Mnangagwa, shortening their jail terms to time served, taking the number of released prisoners to 4,208. Six of those released were serving life terms, having completed at least 20 years behind bars to qualify for clemency, including those convicted of murder that were initially excluded.

They were released from prisons across the country namely Harare, 396, Mashonaland Central, 259, Mashonaland West, 283, Mashonaland East, 242, Manicaland, 321, Midlands, 322, Masvingo, 162, Bulawayo, 280, Matabeleland North, 98, and Matabeleland South, 165.

Mozambique: On 17 April, Club of Mozambique reported that the National Administration of Justice had just ordered the release of 250 prisoners serving sentences of less than one year from the Maputo Provincial Penitentiary under the Amnesty Law and presidential pardon initiative. Maputo Province Prison, the largest in the country, has 3,248 prisoners, of whom about half are expected to benefit from the pardon.    

Botswana: On 17 April, Botswana pardoned and released 149 prisoners. 53 of the 149 were on extramural labor while 96 were incarcerated. Twenty of those released were reportedly foreign nationals and would be released when immigration procedures to send them home were concluded. It remained unclear as to what categories of crimes were pardoned and how long the prisoners had left of their sentences.   

South Africa: By 8 May, two inmates had died while a total of 172 inmates and prison workers had tested positive for the Covid-19 across the country.

In line with Section 82(1)(a) of the Correctional Services Act of 1998, which empowers the president to authorise at any time the placement on correctional supervision or parole of any sentenced prisoner, subject to conditions that may be recommended by the Correctional Supervision and Parole Board, on 8 May President Ramaphosa authorised parole for just under 19,000 inmates, out of a population of 155,000, from areas that are at high risk of Covid-19.

According to the Presidency, the parole dispensation will apply to low-risk inmates who have passed their minimum detention period or will approach this period in the coming five years.

“This dispensation excludes inmates sentenced to life imprisonment or serving terms for specified other serious crimes, including sexual offences, murder and attempted murder, gender-based violence and child abuse. Parolees will serve the remainder of their sentences under Community Corrections.” The process is expected to take place over 10 weeks.

The plight of awaiting-trial prisoners

Action to prevent transmission of Covid-19 in detention centres remains worryingly limited. Detention facilities are particularly of concern as remand or awaiting-trial prisoners live in more congestion and sometimes squalor than convicted prisoners. It is near impossible for people in detention to achieve the required social distancing and access clean toilets, showers and sinks. Already, this population is being affected and by extension the community members who are exposed to them including prison staff. Sections 7 and 9 of the Constitution of South Africa provide that everyone is equal before the law and has the right to equal protection and benefit of the law, and that the state “must respect, protect, promote and fulfill the rights in the Bill of Rights”. Section 35 is specifically dedicated to the arrested, detained and accused persons and stipulates that every detained person, including a prisoner, has a right to conditions that are consistent with human dignity, including and at the State expense, provision of adequate accommodation, nutrition, medical treatment, among others.

Allegations received by the SAHRDN and shared with the Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services (JICS) for further investigations are that at Johannesburg Correctional Centre (called “Sun City”), a cell built for 36 inmates is allegedly currently housing more than 70 inmates and a minimum of three people are required to share a double bed. The ratio of over 70 inmates versus one toilet, one shower and one urinary facility makes it impossible to observe social distancing or to achieve any form of personal hygiene.

Awaiting-trial prisoners are forced to pay money ranging from R300 to R1,000 for them to access beds or decent/human treatment. Those that fail to pay are subjected to inhuman treatment including being forced to sleep in dirty and lice-infested old blankets that have not been washed for seasons.

Allegations of some unethical conduct by prison officials including selling essentials such as toilet paper, toothpaste, soap, shaving razors, blankets and medication, smuggling in cigarettes, snuff and other illegal and harmful substances have been raised by some inmates who prefer to remain anonymous for fear of victimisation. Many prisoners are sharing one cigarette, drastically increasing chances of Covid-19 transmission.

It is unfortunate that awaiting trial prisoners are not covered in the 19,000 to be released.

In Angola, by 27 April, authorities had reportedly released nearly 1,900 people in pretrial detention despite having no confirmed Covid-19 cases in prisons so far. Human Rights Watch however indicated that although the release of detainees will reduce prison overcrowding, it is not enough to avoid a health disaster, arguing that the country’s prisons are ill equipped to curb Covid-19 spread.

Police brutality

Cases of police brutality are on the rise in southern Africa as security agents continue to use force to enforce lockdown restrictions, despite the fact that the same restrictions allow people to go out for essential purposes like buying food and medication.

Rights groups have condemned the brutality meted on citizens, arguing that this leads to a daily influx of new detainees as police continue to detain and place hundreds of people in custody for low-level crimes. Human Rights Watch expressed concern that if not appropriately quarantined and monitored for Covid-19, these new arrivals could contribute to an outbreak in the prison system.

On 1 May, police in Angola released data showing that almost 300 people had been detained in 24 hours for violating state of emergency rules that Angola’s parliament extended to 10 May. Reports indicate that almost half of Angola’s prison population are detainees awaiting trial, with most of them being held for low-level offenses or have been kept in prison on fabricated charges such as for exercising their right to peaceful protest.

In South Africa, 2,289 people had been arrested by 1 April for allegedly failing to comply with National State of Disaster regulations. On 4 May, Times Live reported that at least 826 people had been arrested in KwaZulu-Natal for breaching lockdown regulations since the country downgraded to Level 4, while 130 people were arrested at eMbuzini informal settlement and at a nearby factory site in Orlando West, Soweto, in Gauteng. It was also reported that 126 undocumented foreign nationals had been arrested at the same site and would be detained by Home Affairs. South African police have indicated that they will continue arresting those found flouting regulations.

The C-19 People’s Coalition, a conglomeration of over 300 civil society organisations working in South Africa, released a statement on 5 May condemning the excessive use of force by the South African Police Service on citizens, stating that “the fear induced in people, particularly vulnerable groups, by this heavy-handedness has directly impacted the ability of many to access food, water, electricity, and other basic needs for survival”, adding that a variety of people’s basic rights are being violated. By 13 April, the Zimbabwe Republic Police had arrested 5,226 people across the country for allegedly running shebeens, committing traffic offences, operating businesses without exemption or “moving aimlessly” during lockdown.


People in prisons and other places of detention have turned out to be one category of severely vulnerable groups of people who largely have no control over their circumstances to be able to effectively carry out the measures recommended by the WHO in order to curtail the spread of Covid-19. They cannot physically distance, have no reliable supply of food and clean water. They have no personal protective equipment (PPEs) and are not capable of self-isolating. They do not have access to reliable medical facilities including testing. This converts prisons and places of detention including pre-trial detention into places that can undermine the fight against Covid-19 unless well thought out and planned decogenstion measures are immediately undertaken without compromising justice and accountability for crimes.

It is also clear that the current practice of arresting and detaining the poor who are scavenging for food only increases populations of people in prisons or detention centres at a time when courts are not functioning, thereby increasing prison/detainees’ population and exposure of the poor to Covid-19. 

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

Mainstreaming civic space in State interventions at the UN Human Rights Council Paper presented ahead of the Council’s 44th session

Around the UN Human Rights Council’s tenth anniversary, in 2016, a range of stakeholders, inclu­ding NGOs engaging in advocacy at the Council, led reflections on issues pertaining to its effec­tiveness, ins­ti­tu­tio­nal inte­grity, and impact on the ground. A number of panel discussions, policy dialo­gues and re­ports ad­dress­ed issues pertaining to enhancing respect for Council membership stan­dards, elec­tions to the Coun­cil, the Council’s effectiveness, strengthening action on coun­try situations on the basis of objective cri­te­ria, and ways of opera­tio­nalising the Council’s prevention mandate.[1] Since then, strategic reflec­tions have focus­ed on the use of early warning signs as objective criteria to address mounting human rights crises and other situations of concern.[2]

However, despite progress regarding States’ commitment to consider early action on situations of con­cern (including through the use of tools such as special sessions, urgent debates and inter-sessional brie­fings by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights) as well as expert knowledge, in particular the special procedure system), more action is needed to enhance the Council’s ability to protect the space for civil society actors in specific country situations. The global “Call to Action” the UN Secretary-General launched in February 2020 made clear that threats against human rights defenders (HRDs), especially women HRDs (WHRDs), and journalists, are increasing, and that governments restricting civic space “is frequently a pre­lu­de to a more general deterioration in human rights.”[3]

This paper outlines how member and observer States of the Council can help safeguard and strengthen civic space at the national level by using civic space restrictions as key early warning signs and objective criteria for action, and by more systematically examining civic space indicators when they assess coun­try situ­ations, including progress. After an overview of what is needed to further operationalise the Coun­cil’s prevention mandate (section 1), the paper makes the case for using dimensions and indicators of civic space as crite­ria for individual and collective action (section 2). Section 3 proposes paths forward for the main­strea­ming of civic space in State interventions.

1. States’ sub-optimal contribution to the Council’s prevention mandate

The Council has a responsibility to “contribute, through dia­logue and co­ope­ra­tion, towards the pre­ven­tion of human rights violations” and to “res­pond promptly to human rights emergencies.”[4] In June 2016, on the occasion of the Council’s tenth anniversary, a cross-regional group of States deli­ver­ed a state­ment[5] that put forth objective human rights criteria (which became known as the “Irish Principles”) that should guide action on coun­try situations that require atten­tion. In June 2017, a Dutch-led joint statement[6] built on that initiative by pled­ging to apply “objective and human rights-based criteria” in determining whether and how to respond to a situation of con­cern, and to “take leadership and responsibility in initiating ac­tion when such criteria are met.” In Sep­tem­ber 2017, Norway deli­vered a joint statement[7] on behalf of 69 States on the operationalisation of the Council’s prevention mandate. In March 2018, in­coming HRC mem­bers pledged,[8] inter alia, to “address human rights concerns on their merits, applying objective and human rights-based criteria in determining whether and how the Council should respond to a situation of concern, and take leadership and res­ponsibility in initiating action when such criteria are met.” Since then, “incoming members’ pledges” have been delivered at every March session, including most recently by the de­le­gation of the Marshall Islands on behalf of several new members (March 2020). These sta­te­ments are important contributions to more robust and consistent preventative ac­tion by the Council.

However, as shown in the report prepared by three Rapporteurs pursuant to resolution 38/18 on the con­tri­bu­­tion of the Council to the prevention of human rights violations,[9] the Council’s prevention mandate re­mains under-utilised. Human rights advocates often face difficulties in persuading States to take mea­­ningful action (either individually (in national-capacity statements) or collectively, in the form of joint sta­te­ments or reso­lu­tions) on country situ­a­tions, in particular at the “preventative engagement” stage, i.e., be­fore a human rights crisis has erupted.

Too often, the concerned countries continue to regard “prevention” and preventative engagement as in­tru­sive and unwarranted interventions. This places the international community in front of a dilemma: to ei­ther take early action on a situation (which may or may not escalate into a crisis) and risk being accused of “crying wolf,” or to wait until early warning signs are confirmed as such and grave violations occur. The cost of failing to heed early warning indicators and engage the country concerned may then become exor­bitant.

As highlighted by the UN Secretary-General in his “Call to Action,” and the Council’s report: early warning signs of a deteriorating hu­man rights situation often include attacks against HRDs, civil socie­ty actors and independent voices, in­cluding journalists, media professionals, and bloggers, and an overall shrinking spa­ce for civil society. Unfortunately, in practice, restrictions to civic space are often insufficient to bring about preventative engagement, including public expres­sions of concern in mul­­ti­lateral arenas such as the Coun­cil.

Indeed, these restrictions tend to be overlooked by States in their interventions in relevant Council deba­tes. Often, States start raising concerns over a specific country situation only when that country’s politi­cal opposition is attacked – not before, when HRDs and civil society actors, including social movements, are targeted. This not only risks en­trenching a false narrative of partisan multilateral engagement, but is also a missed op­por­­tu­nity insofar as direct attacks against opponents often occur at a later stage, after civil society has been stifled and civic space and the rule of law have been eroded as a result of legal, policy and practical restrictions. Fur­ther­more, reprisals and attacks against those reporting human rights violations could of­ten be treated as early warning signs of an escalating human rights crisis, as they may indicate governments’ unwilling­ness to see information on human rights (including risk factors of violations) reach the UN human rights system. 

2. Civic space restrictions as objective criteria for State action at the Council

Nevertheless, tools are available to States that are willing to deliver on their commitment to pre­vent hu­man rights violations and “res­pond promptly to human rights emergencies.” Focusing on restrictions on the work of HRDs, civil society, journalists and other independent actors as indicators to assess human rights situations objectively, these tools in­clude reports by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), assess­ments by special proce­dure mandate-holders, pronouncements by regional mechanisms, UN bodies, and national human rights institutions (NHRIs), HRD testimonies, and NGO reports.[10] OHCHR has recognised the importance to prevention of the work of HRDs, independent NGOs, Paris Principle compliant NHRIs and a free press to monitor, report and ad­vise on human rights issues and identify early warning signs of gross and sys­tematic violations.[11]

In the last OHCHR report on the contribu­tion of the Council to the prevention of human rights violations, Rapporteurs stressed that “[t]he targeting by State or non-State actors of human rights defenders, jour­nalists or civil society organizations, who are often the main transmitters of information about human rights emergencies, is […] of particular concern as this may also lead to information about any dete­rio­ration in the situation not reaching the international community.”[12]

Civic space is a multi-dimensional concept. It includes the situation of HRDs, the rights to freedom of opinion and expression, peaceful assembly, association, participation in public and political affairs, and other rights, including the cross-cutting right to equality before the law, equal protection of the law, and non-discrimination. Va­rious global indices are available to track progress in, or deterioration of, civic space. They include CIVI­CUS’ Civic Space Monitor, Freedom House’s Freedom in the World report, Repor­ters With­out Borders’ (RSF) World Press Freedom Index, as well as information and analyses by HRDs and national and regional NGOs. Civic space analysis, monitoring, and support have also been increasingly central to the work of OHCHR, which has a Civic Space Unit.[13] Restrictions include, inter alia, curtailment of funda­men­tal freedoms, attacks against the media, attacks against HRDs and civil society organisations, and the introduction of restrictive laws and policies.

In the Council’s plenary debates, however, references to such information remain sub-optimal. This is a missed opportunity for member and observer States. By using evidence-based information on civic space pat­terns, States could further strengthen and fine-tune their interventions on spe­ci­fic country situations. By taking into account key civic space developments at an early stage, States could engage in more mea­ningful action and preventative engagement with the countries concerned, in par­ti­cular where civic spa­ce restrictions may be a prelude to a full-fledged human rights crisis. By using civic space restrictions as early warning signs of deteriorating human rights situations, States would equip themselves with key objective criteria for action at the Council, both in their national ca­pa­city and collectively, and members of the Council would make further progress towards fulfilling their responsibilities to take action to respond to situations of concern.

At a later stage – for instance when a country has overcome a crisis and taken action to improve its human rights situation – civic space indicators could provide the Council with invaluable tools to assess progress, adapt its engage­ment (including the contents of resolutions and agenda item used), and outline a path forward (including through the use of benchmarks) for the country concerned. 

This would go a long way towards (i) operationalising the Council’s prevention mandate; (ii) providing dip­lomatic support and protection to HRDs and other independent actors in the countries concerned; (iii) ensuring policy coherence by integrating civic space in States’ human rights policy, including at the mul­ti­lateral level; and (iv) enhancing the Council’s impact, which can be invisible (avoi­ding a crisis). In addition, using civic space restrictions as objective criteria for action would cross-fertilise efforts to address human rights situations in a holistic manner, allowing States, OHCHR, other human rights bodies and mecha­nisms, and national and regional stakeholders to work towards the same goal: preventing violations and building the resilience of national systems and institutions.

3. Mainstreaming civic space in State interventions at the Council

A large number of States already integrate civic space issues and dimensions (including restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association and the environment for HRDs, civil society, and the media) in their interventions, and use these when considering action on country situations. How­ever, more is needed to implement civic space-related commitments set out above. The Council’s capa­city to effectively address human rights emergencies at an early stage and to prevent emergencies from esca­lating into hu­man rights crises could be augmented if States and regional/political groups integrated civic space issues in their interventions more systematically. Equally, the Council’s capacity to support Sta­tes reco­vering from human rights crises and to help them build resilience would be enhanced by a more systematic use of civic space indicators, including in the form of benchmarks for assessing pro­gress. The elements below are additional tools to determine what the “civic space restrictions” objective criteria could entail.

Civic space elements that may be included in statements include undue restrictions on, attacks against, and other challenges facing, HRDs, civil society actors and other independent voices, in­cluding journa­lists, media professionals, bloggers, community leaders, artists, and trade unionists, and members and sup­porters of social movements. These res­trictions and attacks may include restrictive laws and regulations, institutional practices targeting these actors, and patterns of intimidation, harassment (both online and offline), stigmatisation, vilification and smear cam­paigns, threats, physical assault, arbitrary arrest and detention, and other forms of judicial and extra-legal harassment, as well as systematic impunity for these acts. Particular attention should be paid to the multiple and intersecting risks facing WHRDs, including discrimination and vio­lence.

Patterns of civic space restrictions also include broader legal, institutional, policy and practical restric­tions on citizens’ rights to freedom of opinion and expression, peaceful assembly, association, and parti­cipa­tion in public and political affairs, as well as other rights such as equality before the law, equal pro­tection of the law, and non-discrimination.

Such information can be collected through States’ own channels (e.g., diplomatic networks) and the abo­ve­men­tioned indices and tools, reports by national actors, NHRIs, OHCHR reports, and assess­ments by spe­cial proce­dure mandate-holders, among others.

A coherent, objective, and strategic approach to using civic space in relation to coun­try situations in inter­ventions at the Council should include the following elements. Ahead of each debate or session, States should give due consideration to the possibility of using one or several of these options. This does not pre­clude, but rather complements and strengthens, bilateral engagement with the country concerned, at the Embassy level, in capital, and in international fora.

(i) Individual and joint statements on situations already on the Council’s agenda

In such situations, action has already taken to address a country situation. However, further or more ro­bust ac­tion may be needed to reflect developments on the ground or risk factors of further violations, including against HRDs and civil society. Without corrective action being taken, a human rights emer­gency may evolve into a human rights crisis, with possible regional implications. In relevant interactive dialogues (IDs) and general debates (GDs), recommendations may include moving consideration of the country concerned to another ag­en­da item, establishing or extending a country-specific mechanism, holding an urgent debate, enhancing public de­bates on the country concerned, requesting additional reporting on the country, or transmitting Council-mandated reports to other UN bodies and me­cha­nisms, including the UN Security Council and the UN General Assembly. States delivering statements should always raise civic space issues and the situation of HRDs and civil society when reflecting on developments in the country and considering appropriate action. Upon consultation with civil society, it may also be useful to raise individual cases of concern, including of de­tained HRDs or HRDs at risk and victims of reprisals.

In other cases, the Council may be helping a State recover from a human rights crisis and build resi­lience. The country concerned may be on its way out of the Council’s agenda. Again, Council action would benefit from a more systematic use of civic space indicators, including in the form of benchmarks for assessing pro­gress and the next steps.

(ii) Individual and joint statements on situations that are not on the Council’s agenda

In such situations, the Council should take action on a country situation that fulfils objective criteria, in­cluding civic space restrictions as early warning signs. Statements delivered during GDs or the ID with the High Commissioner may inclu­de a range of elements, including urging more engagement between the country concerned and regio­nal and international mechanisms, other forms of preventative enga­gement, esta­bli­shing a country-spe­cific mechanism, holding an urgent de­bate or a special session, or requesting repor­ting on the country con­cerned. States delivering statements should always raise civic space issues and the situation of HRDs and civil society when reflecting on developments in the country and considering appropriate action. Best practice could include providing benchmarks for the country concerned, indicating that if these benchmarks re not met, more formal Council action may follow.

(iii) Thematic debates

States delivering statements during IDs and panel discussions, as well as GDs under “thematic” agenda items such as item 3, item 5, item 6, item 8, or item 9 should raise country-specific si­tuations to exemplify civic space restrictions. IDs with special procedure mandate-holders and OHCHR officials, panel discuss­ions, and GDs are opportunities for pre­ven­tative engagement, including on early warning. As was high­lighted elsewhere, a single or a group of special procedure mandate-holders suggesting Coun­cil action could also constitute such an early warning.[14]

Raising spe­ci­fic instances of restrictions to, or attacks against, HRDs and civil society can play a protective and de­terring role and signal willingness to engage on the basis of on-the-ground developments.

In particular, the IDs with the UN Assistant Secretary-General on acts of intimidation and reprisals related to engagement with the UN provide an opportunity for States to effectively prevent and redress reprisals, by raising individual cases of reprisals from the Secretary-General’s annual “reprisals” reports. This would contribute to increasing the political cost for States committing reprisals and thus contribute to deter­rence.

Best practices and positive stories may also be raised in such debates. A country opening up its civic space, lifting restrictions on civil society events or the media, adopting a law on the protection of HRDs, or taking other positive steps regarding civic space could be used as an example of how progress in terms of civic space can translate into broader human rights progress, with a multiplier effect. Such best practices and positive stories deserve more attention at the Council.

(iv) Resolutions

Relevant dimensions of civic space, including restrictions to specific rights and freedoms and attacks ag­ainst specific actors, are already frequently included in resolutions.[15] However, this is not systematic. Civic space indicators are major dimensions in the assessment of a country’s situation, including patterns and evolu­tions (posi­tive or negative), and should be mainstreamed as such in all country-specific resolutions.

(v) The UPR process: reviews and adoptions

A number of NGOs have mainstreamed, or entirely focused on, civic space in their UPR submissions. Re­commendations formulated by States frequently cover freedom of expression, freedom of the media, HRDs and civil society; however, there is room for progress.[16] When acting as recommending States, Sta­tes should consider dedicating at least one recommendation per review to civic space issues and ende­avour to formulate specific, measurable, action-oriented, and time-bound recommendations. The­se can include, among others, amending or repealing legislation ad­ver­sely affecting civic space, adop­ting a law or setting up a me­chanism for the protection of HRDs, civil society organisations or media professionals, and thoroughly inves­tiga­ting attacks against civil society actors including reprisals for engaging with the UN. Recommending States should also prioritise discussing civic space-related recommendations and developments during statements delivered for Working Group report adoptions.

When acting as States under review, States should commit to accepting recommendations on civic space, including freedoms of opinion and ex­pres­sion, peaceful assembly and association, the right to parti­cipa­tion in public af­fairs, and recom­men­dations on protecting HRDs, civil society organisations, media professionals, and other independent actors.

(vi) Special sessions or urgent debates

States should give paramount importance to civic space restrictions when considering supporting the convening of a special session or urgent debate on a specific situation. When such session or debate occurs, States should include civic space in their interventions.

Conclusion: strengthening the civic space agenda

As a topic, civic space is already institutionalised at the Coun­cil. A num­ber of reso­lutions on civil society space[17] have been adopted. The initiative upcoming at the Council’s 44th session (15 June-3 July 2020) is an opportunity to strengthen the civic space agenda.

This paper provides a number of insights and tools to mainstream civic space in State interventions at the Council; however, nothing meaningful can happen without political will to address country situations. In­di­vidually and jointly, States should step up their action and apply objective cri­te­ria to country-specific con­texts. In this process, they should treat civic space issues, developments and indicators as paramount.

[1] See for instance International Service for Human Rights et al., “Human Rights Council at 10: Civil society outlines plan for HRC to be­come more protective, effective and accessible,” 28 April 2016, (accessed 10 April 2020).

[2] Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and International Service for Human Rights, “Strengthening the UN Human Rights Coun­cil From the Ground Up: Report of a one-day dialogue held on 22 February 2018,” (accessed 10 April 2020).

[3] See UN Secretary-General, “The Highest Aspiration: A Call to Action for Human Rights,” available at: (accessed 13 April 2020).

[4] UN General Assembly (UNGA) resolution 60/251, paragraph 5(f).

[5] Available at (accessed on 10 April 2020).

[6] Available at: (accessed on 10 April 2020).

[7] Available at: (accessed on 10 April 2020).

[8] Available at: (accessed on 10 April 2020).

[9] Human Rights Council, “Overview of consultations on the contribution of the Human Rights Council to the prevention of human rights violations,” UN Doc. A/HRC/43/37, 14 January 2020.

[10] See International Service for Human Rights et al., “Human Rights Council at 10,” op. cit., and DefendDefenders, “Opera­tio­nalising the UN Human Rights Council’s prevention mandate, strengthening action on country situations,” 18 June 2018, (accessed on 10 April 2020).

[11] International Service for Human Rights, “Early warning, effective response: The role of the Human Rights Council in preventing gross and systematic violations,” 2 May 2016, (accessed on 10 April 2020). In addition, “[w]hen WHRDs’ knowledge and voices are ignored or dis­re­garded, […] early warning signs for conflict or violence might be dismissed” (ISHR, “Are Peace and Security Possible without Women Human Rights Defenders? And why this question matters to the United Nations Security Council,” 27 November 2019, (accessed on 13 April 2020)).

[12] Human Rights Council, “Overview of consultations on the contribution of the Human Rights Council to the prevention of human rights violations,” op. cit., para. 62. See also paras. 63-64.

[13] OHCHR, “Management Plan: Enhancing participation and protecting civic space,” (accessed 10 April 2020).

[14] International Service for Human Rights et al., “Human Rights Council at 10,” p. 8.

[15] Including under agenda item 10. See DefendDefenders, “No Advice without Knowledge: Scrutiny elements in the UN Human Rights Council’s item 10 resolutions,” 21 June 2019, (accessed on 13 April 2020).

[16] See UPR Info, “Statistics of Recommendations,” available at: (accessed on 13 April 2020).

[17] Resolutions 24/21, 27/31, 32/31, and 38/12. Conceptually, “civic space” may be broader than “civil society space,” which refers to the space civil society enjoys for its activities and the legal and operational environment it operates in. Civic space includes all elements relating to the environment individual citizens and civil society organisations operate in for both formal and informal activities.

Southern Africa Human Rights Roundup

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.

Angolareports 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.    

Malawiefforts 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 Africaranked 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.