Category: Zambia

Southern Africa Human Rights Round-up

The Southern Africa Human Rights Roundup is a weekly column aimed at highlighting important human rights news in southern Africa. It integrates efforts of human rights defenders and facilitates evidence-based engagement with key stakeholders and institutions on the human rights situation across the region.

Zambia recorded its first two cases of the Covid-19 virus on 18 March 2020. At first, the virus appeared to be contained but gradually, as the number of local transmission cases increased, the virus increased exponentially. According to the latest official statistics, Zambia has recorded a total of 10,372 cases of Covid-19 (by 21 August) with the official number of Covid-19 related deaths at 274.

Zambia is hitting the peak of the pandemic.  Yet the government has announced that there will be no lockdown, so as to avoid curtailing the means of survival for ordinary Zambians. This is because the majority of Zambians live from hand-to-mouth, a situation now made worse by the Covid-19 pandemic.

So far, we have been very lucky. We are not seeing apocalyptic numbers of deaths and our health facilities are just about coping with the numbers of the sick. Only a few months ago, in May, President Edgar Lungu announced that the government was advising citizens to follow the health guidelines laid down. He talked about “transitioning to a new normal”. But effectively our “new normal” meant each man for himself and God for us all.

Whilst the jury is out on whether the official figures tally with the actual numbers, it appears that the pandemic in Zambia is being managed reasonably well. Despite a shortage of protective clothing and testing kits, the health facilities are generally adequate.

However, as with many countries across the globe, the pandemic has also created an opportunity for political expediency that has had a detrimental effect on the human rights situation in the country. This is in the context of the fact that Zambia will be going to the polls to elect a new government in 2021.

All roads lead to 2021 and as a result political expediency has been the order of the day. For example, the Government has introduced two statutory instruments under the Public Health Act in order to manage the pandemic. Both are thin on the details as to how the health regulations will be enforced.

Just a few days ago the police spokesperson, Esther Mwata Katongo announced that the police would start arresting and fining people the equivalent of $US39 for not wearing masks in public. The police did start making arrests accordingly, but the Home Affairs Minister Stephen Kampyongo rescinded the decision days later as it became apparent that there was no legal backing for the move in the health regulations. 

In terms of human rights, probably Zambia’s most well-known Covid-19 victim is Prime Television, a popular independent television station that had its broadcasting licence revoked following its refusal to broadcast government adverts and programmes on the Covid-19 pandemic for free in the midst of the economic crisis facing the country. The current Zambian government already has a history of clamping down on media freedoms following the closure of the largest independent newspaper in Zambia, The Post in 2017, and various other radio stations that have been critical of the government. The official reason given for closing the television station was that its broadcasting licence had expired.

Another casualty has been the restrictions on freedom of assembly. Public gatherings in Zambia are governed by the Public Order Act, a notorious piece of legislation whose constitutionality has been challenged several times on the basis that its provisions are arbitrary and not necessary in a democratic state. To adhere to the provisions of the Public Order Act, Zambians now have to get authority from the Ministry of Health or the Local Authority to hold public gatherings of more than five people.

These restrictions are being selectively applied. Government officials and individuals considered close to the ruling party freely hold rallies and large public gatherings without the appearance of any health and safety regulations being adhered to. Zambians have been told that government officials cannot be blamed for people following them around. This has led to many Zambians either resenting any restrictions placed on them or believing that the pandemic is a hoax.

However, when it comes to dissenting voices such as opposition political parties, the restrictions are applied with efficient (and sometimes inefficient) responses. A group of youth protestors attempted to hold a public protest on the socio-economic challenges faced by Zambian youth on 22nd June 2020. The police came out fully armed in riot gear and roamed around the streets in armoured vehicles in an attempt to intimidate the protestors into stopping their protest.

However, the quick-thinking youth took their protest to the bush and beamed it live to an audience of around 300,000 people on their social media platforms. In June there were reports of police arresting opposition members for attempting to hold intra-party elections.

As always, the hardest hit by any crisis are the poor and vulnerable. As with most countries, we are grappling with how to send our children back to school.

Like countries all over the world, our ailing economy has been further crippled by the loss of business and resulting unemployment or underemployment. The government has partnered with donors to provide social protection to the most vulnerable but with 58% of the Zambian population of around 17 million living below the poverty line according to 2015 World Bank figures, resources are stretched. There has been little done to ensure that the rights most affected by the pandemic are still protected, promoted and fulfilled and this is impacting on the overall effectiveness of the government’s response to the pandemic.

Ultimately, whilst the Covid-19 pandemic has been a universal crisis, Zambia’s is a crisis of leadership. Our government needs to put the interests of the country above partisan interests and unite the country regardless of the upcoming general elections. We need to take a human rights-based approach to tackling the pandemic specifically and to tackling governance issues generally.

Our “new normal” should leave no one behind. 

Linda Kasonde is a lawyer and human rights activist heading Chapter One Foundation, a civil society organisation that promotes and protects human rights and the rule of law. She is also an Archbishop Desmond Tutu Leadership Fellow.

Southern Africa Human Rights Roundup

The Southern Africa Human Rights Roundup is a weekly column aimed at highlighting important human rights news in southern Africa. It integrates efforts of human rights defenders and facilitates evidence-based engagement with key stakeholders and institutions on the human rights situation across the region.

Southern African Development Community (SADC) Summits never fail to come up with the most colorful and promising of themes. The 40th (SADC) Summit currently underway is themed: SADC: 40 Years Building Peace and Security, and Promoting Development and Resilience in the face of Global Challenges

In light of the Covid-19 global pandemic, the annual Summit is for the first time in history being held in a virtual format. Mozambique is coordinating the summit from 10-17 August 2020. Despite the colourful and hopeful theme the summit is being held in the midst of serious human rights violations with total impunity in Zimbabwe, where the government has mastered the art of using Covid-19 measures to stifle democratic participation and demands for accountable governance. 

As Maputo is co-ordinating the summit on peace and security, the main news was that Mozambique’s army had lost the key port of Mocimboa da Praia, to Islamist militants on Wednesday 12 August 2020. The Islamist militants now control the territory and have a resources foothold in southern Africa, given that Mocimboa da Praia is near the site of natural gas projects worth $60bn (£46bn). 

This could spell serious calamity. Southern Africa might as well kiss goodbye the long-held notion of southern Africa being seen as the most peaceful and stable sub-region in Africa.

This week’s roundup looks at the SADC Summit and issues around it.

Virtual Heads of State summit

The virtual summit is taking place with a reduced agenda to allow the leaders to focus more on critical issues in the region, including: co-ordinated response to Covid-19; review progress towards the development of a post-2020 SADC agenda; measures to address food insecurity; receive a progress report on the implementation of the industrialisation strategy; take stock of interventions undertaken to promote peace and stability member states; and renewal of institutional leadership.  

Over the years, SADC has been widely criticised for failing to tackle regional peace and security challenges, with some critics labelling it a ‘toothless bulldog’. The inability to resolve conflict is best demonstrated by the ignominious collective decision of the SADC heads of state and government to disband the sub-regional judicial organ, the SADC Tribunal, merely because Zimbabwe disagreed with a binding judgment of that court.  

Although some argue that in the absence of SADC, violent conflicts could have been more pervasive in southern Africa, the body’s interventions have not effectively dealt with violent and political crises, thereby undermining development. This is supported by the notion that it is inconceivable to have socio-economic development in the absence of peace and stability. 

Toothless bulldog?

SADC’s inherent weaknesses are both historic and institutional. First, the co-operation is rooted in historical ties steeped in anti-colonial struggles such that liberation war parties view themselves as each brother’s keeper. 

Second, the recurrent electoral crises produce contested outcomes and arguably illegitimate leaders. This unfortunately creates leaders who are not fully accepted by their populations and therefore rule by coercion and not consent. This results in unaccountable governance that breeds corruption and conflict. If unaccountable leaders of questionable legitimacy are at the helm of SADC, what reasonable expectation is there that they will fight impunity and work towards justice, peace and stability?

As political instability in many SADC states is driven by complaints of inability to conduct free, fair and credible elections, one thing SADC should focus on is to invest in strengthening the independence of election management bodies. Only South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and lately Malawi seem to get it right. The SADC Summit should devote attention to this to create a basis for sustainable peace and stability. It is unlikely that it will, though.

This year’s theme recognises that peace and stability are key preconditions for sustainable development and regional integration. However, SADC is also notoriously inefficient or incapable of enforcing its own protocols. The weak, and at times nonexistent, enforcement mechanisms for its decisions make the SADC a toothless bulldog.

Brotherhood philosophy

The Organ for Politics, Defence and Security (Organ) launched in June 1996 is the formal institution of SADC with the mandate to support the achievement and maintenance of security and the rule of law. Its leadership is in the form of a ‘troika’ system comprising a current chair as well as the previous and incoming chairs. 

Zimbabwe currently chairs this Organ, which is charged with ensuring peace and the rule of law in the region.  

However, when it comes to the crucial responsibility of building peace and security, efforts have been undermined by the ‘brotherhood’ approach that has resulted in the regional bloc failing to collectively solve the socio-economic and political crises that consequently deepen over time. 

Ringisai Chikohomore of the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) characterises this cheap ‘brotherhood’ well. He describes it as member states who “opt for accommodation and fraternal solidarity as an unsaid modus operandi, resulting in a failure to sanction delinquent states.” 

The systemic failure by SADC leaders to hold each other to account for human rights violations is seeing southern Africa’s non-violent image fading due to events occurring in various countries in recent years. 

Current conflicts and crises in the SADC

Governance issues have ignited the most acute crises in the SADC states for more than a decade. These include coups, disputed elections, and political instability, authoritarian rule, civil unrest, abuse of state power, and lack of transparency and accountability by governments in their desperate bid to cling to power and authority. 

Members of the Zimbabwe National Army stand guard at a checkpoint in the central business district, Harare, Zimbabwe on 31 July 2020. Police and the army blocked planned anti-government mass protests organised by the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU). People were prevented from getting into town. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Aaron Ufumeli)

On 13 August prominent civil society leaders from southern Africa met virtually at a regional meeting facilitated by the Southern African Human Rights Defenders Network (SAHRDN) and the Zimbabwe NGO Forum to discuss the Zimbabwe crisis and make recommendations for consideration by the SADC Summit. 

A woman fetches water from a spring amid water shortages in Harare. (Photo by Tafadzwa Ufumeli / Getty Images)

The findings were that the government of Zimbabwe is guilty of attacks on democratic space; use of the Covid-19 pandemic as a pretext to clamp down on freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly and association; organised violence and torture and using the criminal justice system as a political weapon.

Their final communique concluded:

Zimbabwe’s human rights problems are highly entangled with the political developments. Similarly, the economy is reactive to political developments. According to the 2019 Labour Force Survey released in March 2020, 74% of Zimbabwe’s labour force is in the informal sector… Zimbabweans are therefore now suffering the triple burden of poverty, unemployment and inequality. 

Nurses at Harare Central Hospital protest over low salaries on 6 July 2020. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Aaron Ufumeli)

The Zimbabwe government of President ED Mnangagwa, which was born out of the November 2017 coup and a disputed 2018 election, has become notorious at weaponising the law and judicial persecution of human rights activists akin to how the law was instrumentalised during the colonial regime of Ian Smith.  

Critics are sceptical that President Mnangagwa as part of the Organ leadership can allow for a SADC-led solution to the Zimbabwe crisis. 

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa sent his special envoys Mbete and Mufamadi to Harare to try to mediate the low-intensity but high-impact conflict last week, but the envoys returned to Pretoria empty-handed after Mnangagwa apparently blocked them from meeting anyone else from the opposition or civil society.

That the current leaders got away with a soft military coup in 2017, the first time in the history of the SADC that a military coup was staged, might explain why the government of Zimbabwe is able to blatantly violate rights in a serial way with impunity.

Mozambique and Islamic terrorism: Mozambique has a troubled political history. In 2012, Mozambican Renamo rebels took up arms again and, although they apparently lacked the military capacity to rekindle a civil war, they attacked government troops and transport routes, creating economic disruption and insecurity ever since. 

Passengers and cargo board a boat from a fishermen’s beach that has become one of the main arrival points for displaced persons fleeing from armed violence raging in the province of Cabo Delgado, in the Paquitequete district of Pemba, northern Mozambique. Radical Islamist militant groups seeking to establish an Islamic state in the region, such as Ansar al-Sunna, have claimed responsibility for some of these attacks over the past year. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Ricardo Franco)

In May 2020, there were reports of insurgents carrying out “some of their most daring assaults”, seizing government buildings, blocking roads, and hoisting black and white Islamic State flags in Cabo Delgado’s towns and villages. 

Recent reports indicate that the civilian security situation in Cabo Delgado continues to worsen. In Mocimboa da Praia, sporadic attacks by insurgents since July resulted in homes being burned, food supplies looted, and people killed and some kidnapped.

A child from the Vicente Tiago family of 30 people who fled the armed attacks in Muidumbe, Cabo Delgado, and took refuge in a small, precarious house in Chiuba, Pemba City, Cabo Delgado province, Mozambique. Thousands of families are in need of food aid in the humanitarian crisis affecting the northern province of Mozambique. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Ricardo Franco)

Sadly as the current SADC summit is taking place there are reports that dozens of Mozambican soldiers have been killed, and a patrol boat sunk, while the army says it has killed about 60 militants. The Islamist militants took over and conquered Mocimboa da Praia from the ill-equipped, ill-prepared, and demoralised Mozambican army that fled the scene of fighting. 

For more than three years now, the SADC region has stared at the prospects of Islamic terrorism getting a foothold in the region via the Cabo Delgado province of Mozambique, where 700 000 people are now affected by the war. Yet such an obvious threat to regional peace and stability has not received any meaningful reaction from the SADC. It will not be a surprise if this summit comes and goes as if nothing is happening.

DRC and potential regression: When President Tshisekedi ascended to the throne in 2019, there was relief that for the first time in more than 60 years there was a transition of power to a civilian leader as a result of elections. 

However, political instability and ethnic-based conflict continue. Between October 2019 and February 2020, more than 300 civilians were killed in northwest Beni, North Kivu province, when the Congolese army launched a military operation against a non-state armed actor, the so-called Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), in an attempt to dismantle and expel the group. 

There are fears that a power struggle is currently raging between President Tshisekedi and former president Kabila, “who continues to wield enormous power through his parliamentary majority, control of the army and several cabinet ministries, to interfere with the country’s next elections in 2023.”

SADC can ill-afford another full-blooded conflict in the DRC. SADC’s military intervention in the DRC in 1998 has already been widely discussed and criticised as an illustration of SADC’s lack of unity, dearth of co-operation, and ability to be hijacked by national if not private interests. 

Zambia and Lungu’s power consolidation: President Lungu came into power after questionable elections. The United States’ 2019 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices in Zambia notes that the country’s last election in 2016 was marred by irregularities. 

“Although the results ultimately were deemed a credible reflection of votes cast, media coverage, police actions, and legal restrictions heavily favoured the ruling party and prevented the election from being genuinely fair.

Civil society has of late reported systematic and sustained attacks on the free media in Zambia ahead of the 2021 elections. 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, and Radio Maria.

This systematic and sustained attack on free media in Zambia shows that the militias who religiously carry out these attacks act with the acquiescence of the state. Frankly speaking, no one expects SADC to do anything about this, in the process reinforcing the notion that impunity pays.

Eswatini – Last absolute monarchy in the world: Eswatini remains as the last absolute monarchy in the world, with notable governance deficits. King Mswati holds supreme executive power over the parliament and judiciary by virtue of a 1973 State of Emergency decree.

Why the SADC does not hold King Mswati to account and fully implement the 2005 constitution remains a mystery. 

Lesotho and failure to implement the Phumaphi report: Since its return to democracy in 1993, political instability, characterised by excessive meddling in civilian politics by the military, continued to rock Lesotho. In May 2020, former Prime Minister Tom Thabane finally bowed to pressure and resigned. Moeketsi Majoro, who according to analysts faces enormous hurdles ensuring peace and political stability in the country, replaced him. 

Such is the political instability in Lesotho that by 2018, when the SADC established a commission of inquiry into killings of the army commander led by Justice Phumaphi, Lesotho had had three elections in five years , after the government collapsed with votes of no confidence in Prime Ministers. 

SADC has failed to enforce the full implementation of the Phumaphi report resulting in prime Minister Tom Thabane being ousted and political instability and economic and social suffering of Basotho continuing unabated with the possibility of a fourth election in seven years.  

Can Tanzania hold credible elections? 

Despite the raging on of Covid-19, Tanzanian President Magufuli decided to power on with elections. Tanzanian opposition leader Tundu Lissu, who was shot 16 times in an attempt on his life in 2017, has said he lacks confidence in the electoral commission ahead of his presidential contest in October’s general elections. Lissu accused Tanzania’s electoral officials of serving at the pleasure of the incumbent, arguing that the chairman and the chief executive of the electoral commission were appointed by President Magufuli in an opaque manner, rendering their impartiality questionable. 

Lissu has also recently written to President Cyril Ramaphosa in his capacity as Chairperson of the AU, appealing for his own protection ahead of the elections.

Peace, stability and development in southern Africa:  A pie in the sky

In 1992, a landmark achievement by the Community was the establishment of the SADC Tribunal. However, it died a slow death as the result of political interference by Zimbabwe after the Tribunal made judgments against Zimbabwe in 2007-8.

It was disbanded in 2011-12. Hope for the revival of the SADC Tribunal was re-ignited after South African High Court judge Dunstan Mlambo ruled that “if the intention of the Zuma-led government was to withdraw Pretoria from the SADC Treaty and Protocol, consent of Parliament had to be obtained first”.  This judgment was confirmed by South Africa’s Constitutional Court in 2018.

If SADC heads of state and government genuinely believe in the rule of law and human rights, then they should prioritise reviving the SADC Tribunal.

It is for reasons such as these that SADC’s institutional framework for regional peace and security is proving ineffective – its leaders are unwilling to enforce democratic principles and to hold each other to account. 

While it has established strong protocols on security co-operation and safeguards on democracy and human rights, SADC continues to operate on the pillars of absolute sovereignty and solidarity, leaving a yawning gap between standards and practice. 

Thus, according to former Botswana President, Ian Khama 

Most of the time presidents at the SADC and the African Union (AU) hold meetings just to look politically correct … they just go home after that and it is business as usual.”

This reinforces the criticism of SADC as a moribund organisation that is ill-equipped to confront critical challenges necessary for the achievement of real progress. 

SADC must be for the people of SADC and not an exclusive inaccessible club for the presidents and heads of state. In its current form and modus operandi, SADC is part of the problem driving instability in the sub-region.

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 Adviser of the SAHRDN. Tatenda Mazurura is a Woman Human Rights Defender (WHRD) and an election expert.

SAHRDN 2020 Human Rights Award Nominations now open

We are seeking nominations for HRDs – an individual or organization working in any of the 16 Southern Africa region  – who have demonstrated an exceptional commitment to human rights defending. In these COVID-19 times,  human rights defenders are continuously under pressure globally, it’s never been more important to raise the profile and honor the work, of brave women and men around the world fighting to promote human dignity usually at great personal risk. To nominate individuals or organizations, please download the nomination forms below. Please use the language of your choice as the nomination forms are in English, French, and Portuguese.

The deadline to submit the nomination forms is 31 August 2020

Southern Africa Human Rights Round-up

The Southern Africa Human Rights Roundup is a weekly column aimed at highlighting important human rights news in southern Africa. It integrates efforts of human rights defenders and facilitates evidence-based engagement with key stakeholders, and institutions on the human rights situation across the region. The weekly roundup is a collaboration between the Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network and Maverick Citizen.

When the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared Covid-19 a global pandemic on 11 March 2020, most governments in southern Africa swiftly introduced lockdowns and curfews to curb the spread of the virus.

The measures slowed the infection rates, potentially preventing calamities associated with the poor state of public health facilities in Africa. However, their most severe consequences were on livelihoods and national economies in a way that threatened stability. It came as no surprise that from May, we saw most countries slowly easing restrictive measures and opening up again — even though the peak of Covid-19 infections has not yet been reached. 

In this article, we take a look at the rate of infections vis-à-vis the state of lockdowns and the challenges that are complicating reopenings across the region.  

Lockdown measures and economic carnage

Reports indicate that 15 sub-Saharan African governments went so far as to partially or fully close their borders – closing airports, ports and in some cases land borders – before they had even confirmed a single case. 

As of 30 March, 46 of sub-Saharan Africa’s 49 sovereign states had imposed partial or full closures of their borders; 44 had closed schools, banned public gatherings, or put in place other social distancing measures; and 11 had declared a state of emergency. 

On a regional level, sub-Saharan Africa arguably responded more quickly and decisively than anywhere else in the world. 

While Africa hasn’t yet suffered the ravages of the pandemic on the scale that has hit other continents like Asia, Europe and America, analysts say Covid-19 could still have a devastating impact on the continent’s already strained health systems and is quickly turning into a social and economic emergency. According to the African Union, the continent faces its first recession in a quarter-century and has lost nearly $55-billion in the travel and tourism sectors in the past three months. 

South Africa, the continent’s largest and most developed economy, is the only African country among the 10 hardest hit Covid-19 countries in the world. South Africa is expected to experience its deepest recession for a century with at least a 7.1% contraction in GDP while the collapse in oil prices has hit Africa’s third-largest economy — Angola — as well as the second-biggest economy, Nigeria, hard. 

In May, the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (Uneca) estimated that Africa could lose up to $65.7-billion (2.5% of annual GDP) for every month of lockdown. 

 Covid-19 update and status in the region

Worldometer reported that as of 14 July, Africa had registered 616,345 cases and more than 13,500 deaths. According to WHO regional director for Africa, Dr Matshidiso Moeti, “Even though these cases in Africa account for less than 3% of the global total, it’s clear that this pandemic is accelerating.” 

South Africa reported its biggest increase in Covid-19 infections on 9 July when the Health Ministry reported that there had been 13,674 new confirmed cases in one day. By 14 July, the number of confirmed cases in South Africa had surpassed 280,000. A record 192 people succumbed to Covid-19 in 24 hours on 7 July. Fatalities increased from 3,502 to 4,172 within a week. 

Reports indicate that by 14 July, DRC had recorded 8,135 cases, Malawi 2,430, Zambia 1,895, Eswatini 1,434, Mozambique 1,268 and Zimbabwe stood at 1,064. Namibia had 864, Angola 525, Tanzania 509, Botswana 399, while Lesotho, one of Africa’s least affected countries, had recorded 256 cases.

It is not clear what is driving the significant differences in infection rates, but there is belief that the differences in numbers may be a factor of the capacity to test and compile up-to-date statistics. South Africa has carried out and continues to carry out extensive testing while some countries like LesothoZimbabwe and Eswatini have limited capacity and therefore their infection-rate statistics will not be reliable.

Reopenings: Economic necessity or health suicide?

Due to the enormous stress the lockdowns have imposed on economies, governments in the region have gradually been reopening economies from May. Zero economic activity is unsustainable. The balance between maintaining some economic activity and containing the spread of Covid-19 is delicate.

The opening up of economies has been accompanied by some strict measures, including quarantining returnees, enforcing the wearing of masks in public, restrictions on public gatherings and continuation of physical distancing. 

The conditions in some quarantine zones in some countries and how they then become zones for the spread of Covid-19 is a matter for another day.

Despite experiencing the highest number of cases, which continue to rise, South Africa continues to move forward with its phased reopening strategy. In June, schools, churches and businesses such as restaurants, hairdressers, and hotels, among others, were allowed to reopen. On 6 July, more pupils returned to school after nearly four months of interruption. 

In a nationally televised address on 12 July, President Ramaphosa, however, announced that while the country would remain on Level 3, regulations would be tightened to ease pressure on the country’s healthcare system and slow the spread of the virus, adding that top health officials had warned of impending shortages of hospital beds and oxygen as South Africa reaches a peak of Covid-19 cases. Ramaphosa reintroduced a ban on the sale of alcohol, arguing that since the sale and distribution of alcohol was permitted again in June, hospitals have undergone a spike in admissions in their trauma and emergency wards. A night-time curfew was also reintroduced and he extended the national state of disaster to 15 August.

In response, the National Liquor Traders Council, South African Liquor Brand Owners Association (Salba), the Beer Association of South Africa, Vinpro, and the Liquor Traders Association of South Africa expressed concern that the ban will lead to more job losses. According to News24, the country’s alcohol industry directly employs about 90,000 people. 

In Tanzania, where President John Magufuli has been accused of taking an aggressive reopening strategy and has criticised local health officials for inflating the country’s Covid-19 numbers, larger gatherings – including weddings and at schools – were allowed to reopen from 29 June. 

Angola lifted its Covid-19 state of emergency at the end of May and reopened businesses at 50% capacity.

African authorities have also decided to reopen airspaceSouth Africa has resumed domestic flights while Tanzania and Zambia now have commercial flights. Tanzania opened its skies weeks ago, hoping for a tourism boost despite widespread concern that it is not being honest about the extent of infections. The country has reportedly not updated case numbers since April.

Tanzania was also the first country to reopen its borders to tourists and international travel as Africa’s tourism gears up for a comeback. 

Other countries such as Zambia and Zimbabwe have followed suit. 

Zambia’s President Edgar Lungu addressed the nation on 25 June and announced the reopening of international airports to boost international tourist arrivals. On 30 June, the government of Zimbabwe announced the easing of regulations in the tourism and hospitality sector. Restaurants will be allowed to welcome sit-in patrons, national parks will reopen and safari operators will resume economic activity. Restaurants may only occupy 50% of their licensed capacity. However, international travel remains banned. 

Zimbabwe remains under an indefinite “partial” lockdown, with a fortnightly review to determine when to reopen. Given the allegations of violations of fundamental freedoms and the arbitrary arrests and detentions of human rights defenders and political opponents, questions continue to be asked whether the indefinite lockdown in the country is meant to achieve public health or rather political outcomes.

As more African countries open their borders, the World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) led Global Tourism Crisis Committee has drawn up guidelines to restart tourismSouth Africa, one of Africa’s most popular destinations, but unfortunately the epicentre of the pandemic in Africa, has however opted to reopen its tourism sector in early 2021.

Covid-19 and the informal economy

The impact of lockdown measures on the formal economy has been the largest trigger of efforts by many governments to reopen. Yet a significant number of African economies and livelihoods have been supported by the informal economy. In other words, Covid-19 has had a disproportionate impact on the poor and people who operate in the informal economy. 

The majority of the peopl live off the informal sector and cross-border trade. As long as the informal sector and borders remain closed, a lot of families face a humanitarian catastrophe. 

In addressing a SADC Parliamentary Forum Standing Committee on Trade, Industry, Finance and Investment meeting, Amnesty International “reckons that informal cross-border trade accounts for between $17-billion and $20-billion per annum” in southern Africa and “so if cross-border informal traders are unable to move and do business, the impact on household incomes would be dire.” 

This led Deprose Muchena, the Amnesty International Director for Southern and East Africa, to conclude that:

“While the globe is dealing with a health pandemic, Africa in general and southern Africa in particular, will be dealing with an economic pandemic.” 

The majority of the people, however, live off the informal sector and cross-border trade. As long as the informal sector and borders remain closed, a lot of families face a humanitarian catastrophe. 

In Zimbabwe, the suffering has raised political tensions with threats for a national anti-government strike on 31 July, led by the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) Alliance, the country’s main opposition party. Faced with a combination of increasing infection rates and threats of protests, President Emmerson Mnangagwa has extended lockdown measures indefinitely, subject to review every two weeks. The reopening of schools in Zimbabwe has also been deferred owing to the rising number of Covid-19 cases. For now, it appears that the lockdown measures will respond to both the threats posed by Covid-19 and potential demonstrations.

Covid-19 reopening setbacks

Until June 2020 Seychelles had gone for “70-plus straight days without a single infection” before “two chartered Air Seychelles flights carrying more than 200 passengers also brought the coronavirus”, resulting in a situation between 24 and 30 June, where the country’s confirmed cases shot from 11 to 81. This made authorities “delay the reopening for commercial flights for its lucrative tourism industry until 1 August, if all goes well”. 

In Eswatini, the reopening suffered a huge setback when judges of the Mbabane High Court contracted the virus on 6 July, forcing the courts to close just a week after a cabinet minister had also tested positive. Schools are still closed and government plans to reopen them has sparked a fierce debate. So serious is the standoff between the government and civil society that the Swaziland National Association of Teachers has filed a court appeal against the government’s plan to reopen schools. The association argues that independent inspections at more than 22 schools had established that conditions were not conducive to learning. 

After easing restrictions for the first time in 48 days on 21 May, Botswana was forced to bring back a strict lockdown in its capital city, Gaborone, and surrounding areas after recording 12 new cases on 12 May. The lockdown was to be lifted on 16 June. On 3 July, the government announced the Ministry of International Affairs and Co-operation was being shut “due to Covid-19 exposure”.  

With Covid-19 being a poverty, inequality and human rights violations multiplier, serious questions continue to be raised on the adequacy of the Covid-19 lockdown measures and current efforts at tweaking such measures in order to facilitate the reopening of the economies. 

At the beginning of July, the president was back in quarantine for the fourth time “due to the discovery of a positive Covid-19 test result on one of the officials closely serving His Excellency the President Dr Mokgweetsi Eric Keabetswe Masisi”.

On 15 July, BBC News reported that as doctors, unions and management fight over scarce resources in South Africa, one senior doctor described the situation as “an epic failure of a deeply corrupt system”, while another spoke of “institutional burnout… a sense of chronic exploitation, the department of health essentially bankrupt, and a system on its knees with no strategic management”.

RFI reported on 28 May that more than 400 people escaped from Kamuzu Stadium quarantine centre in Malawi — at least 46 of them had tested positive for the virus. Reasons for desertion included complaints of inadequate food, not enough bathrooms or other facilities at the stadium they were placed in while others simply bribed the police to escape. On 6 July, Malawi, which took to the polls on 23 June in a fresh presidential election, cancelled its independence celebrations that had been scheduled to coincide with the new president’s inauguration ceremony owing to a sharp rise in Covid-19 cases. 

In South Africa, teacher unions have strengthened calls for schools to close again after President Cyril Ramaphosa confirmed that the country’s Covid-19 peak is yet to come. Several teachers and students were infected with the virus at schools.

“Covid-19 is a global public health challenge, but in Africa, the malady has metamorphosed into an “economic pandemic” requiring bold and innovative parliamentary and governmental responses.” 

Deprose Muchena of Amnesty International says

While governments have been pushed to reopen economies largely by the impact of Covid-19 measures on the formal economy with estimated losses of $65.7-billion per month for each month of lockdown, according to Uneca, it is the carnage on the poor who rely on the informal economy worth $17-billion to $20-billion a year in southern Africa alone that the greatest impact on household incomes is felt. 

With Covid-19 being a poverty, inequality and human rights violations multiplier, serious questions continue to be raised on the adequacy of the Covid-19 lockdown measures and current efforts at tweaking such measures in order to facilitate the reopening of the economies. 

The predominantly weak economies in the region cannot cope for long without opening up. Yet without measures to enforce the conditions necessary for safe reopenings, it appears there is a looming danger of a further spike in infections and with it a possible return to strict lockdowns. The cost of another wholesale lockdown in southern Africa is economically unfathomable and a potential human rights disaster of incalculable proportions. 

Arnold Tsunga is a human rights lawyer and the technical and strategy adviser of the Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network. Tatenda Mazarura is a woman human rights defender (WHRD), a professional rapporteur and an election expert. Mark Heywood is editor of Maverick Citizen.

The Southern Africa Human Rights Round-up

The Southern Africa Human Rights Roundup is a weekly column aimed at highlighting important human rights news in southern Africa. It integrates efforts of human rights defenders and facilitates evidence-based engagement with key stakeholders, and institutions on the human rights situation across the region. The roundup is a collaboration between the Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network and Maverick Citizen.

On 7 July 2020, the government of Malawi issued a little-noticed announcement, withdrawing its decision on 12 June that the country’s chief justice, Andrew Nyirenda, had to go on compulsory leave pending retirement. In a nod to both the separation of powers and judicial independence, the notice acknowledged that the matter of the chief justice’s leave and how or when it should be taken was a “matter between the Honorable the Chief Justice and [the] Judicial Service Commission”.

It was a fitting bookend to the recent story of one of Africa’s unquestionably more unlikely political models, where the judiciary has emerged with credit in policing the ground rules of democratic politics.

In the 26 days from 12 June to 7 July, Malawi navigated a tumultuous path back to the future. On Sunday 14 June, the High Court of Malawi issued two orders suspending the presidential notice that would have effectively sacked the chief justice.

Two weeks later, on 28 June, Lazarus Chakwera, a Pentecostal pastor, took the oath as independent Malawi’s sixth president, replacing Arthur Peter Mutharika, the law professor whom he defeated in the rerun in June 2020 of a ballot from May 2019, which Malawi’s courts had found to have been characterised by high electoral larceny.

The path to this outcome was both tortured and, in the view of many people outside Malawi at least, improbable.

The Tipp-Ex elections

When Malawi went to the polls to elect a president on 21 May 2019, there were 10 parties on the ballot paper. They included Peter Mutharika of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), first elected in 2014. He was running for a second term.

Mutharika’s vice-president, Saulos Chilima, having fallen out with him, ran on the platform of the United Transformation Movement (UTM). Chakwera was the candidate of the Malawi Congress Party (MCP). Also on the ballot was Atupele Muluzi of the United Democratic Front (UDF).

Malawi’s first-past-the-post  electoral system was designed to produce as the winner the candidate with the highest lawful votes. The Malawi Electoral Commission registered 6,859,570 voters to vote in the ballot.

At the end of the contest, the commission announced a turnout of 5,105,983 votes, crediting Mutharika with 38.57% of the votes, Chakwera with 35.41% and Chilima with 20.24%. Muluzi came a distant fourth with 4.67%.

Both Chakwera and Chilima were unhappy with the declared results. The public mood was also fractious, and there were allegations that the electoral commission, led by supreme court justice Jane Ansah, had rigged the polls. Duelling public protests ensued, with vocal civil society advocating that #JaneAnsahMustFall as others claimed that she was the victim of targeted misogyny.

With the support of civil society, Chakwera and Chilima headed to Malawi’s constitutional court to challenge the results. On 3 February 2020, the court nullified the result and ordered a fresh presidential ballot with two stipulations. First, the rerun had to be held not later than six months from the judgment. Second, the winner had to emerge with a clear majority of at least 50% plus one of the votes cast. This was a high threshold for a country where presidential contests had historically been squeaky affairs.

As he was entitled to, Mutharika appealed the judgment to the supreme court. On 8 May, the supreme court affirmed the judgment of the constitutional court, throwing out Mutharika’s appeal. In doing so, the court identified three categories of irregularities that had marred the elections. It found “documents whose contents were altered by either the use of Tipp-Ex, a manual crossing out of the original content or overwriting on the original document. Then there are … completely new documents. In other words, documents that were never, at all, submitted by the polling station. Examples are duplicate, fake, reserve and uncustomised documents. The third category is unsigned documents.”

Under the terms of the court orders, the rerun was set to take place on or before 2 July. There was not a lot of time to get it done. This was only the second time that a court in Africa had nullified a presidential contest.

The first time, in 2017 in Kenya, ended in a fiasco when the irate ruling party decided in response to eviscerate the electoral process to the point where the opposition effectively pulled out of the rerun, paving the way for the incumbent to emerge practically unopposed.

Courts vs. despots

By the time the Malawi supreme court had handed down its judgment, the world was already in the throes of the Covid-19 pandemic. In other parts of Africa, Mutharika’s peers had set about using the pandemic as cover to retain power. In Guinea, President Alpha Condé used it to amend the constitution in order to secure a life presidency. In Burundi, President Pierre Nkurunziza saw in the pandemic an opportunity to install his hand-picked successor.

This was an appealing playbook for Mutharika. On 20 March, he proclaimed an indefinite “state of national disaster” during which he banned “all gatherings including weddings, funerals, church, congregations, rallies and government meetings” of more than 100 people. With this he sought to ban all political rallies during the period preceding the proposed rerun.

Five weeks later, on 28 April, high court judge Kenyatta Nyirenda stopped Mutharika’s government from “suspending or implementing the complete closure of religious gatherings”.

For Mutharika and his coterie, the courts and the church were tag-team against him in a contest in which his biggest opponent was a pastor. It was an odd place to be for somebody who is arguably Malawi’s best known law professor. He should have known that Malawi’s political history was defined by the contest between courts and despots, one in which his own family members have been prime actors.

On Christmas Eve in 1981, the government of Malawi’s founding president, “Ngwazi” Hastings Kamuzu Banda, abducted Malawi’s exiled first attorney-general and justice minister, Orton Chirwa, and his wife, Vera, from Zambia and returned them to the capital city, Lilongwe.

Orton was the founding president of the MCP, which led Malawi to independence in 1964. He was also Malawi’s first lawyer. As minister in the transitional government of 1962, Orton took issue with the presumption of innocence and burden of proof in criminal trials, arguing for their replacement with traditional African norms and institutions. As attorney-general, he pushed for these reforms but was turfed out of cabinet in September 1964 in a power tussle with Banda, before the reforms were promulgated.

A sequence of unsolved murders in the country ended up in the Chilobwe murder trials in 1969, which collapsed when the prosecution could not meet the standard of proof. In response, Banda scrapped criminal trials by regular courts, transferring jurisdiction over crimes to traditional courts, comprising a traditional chief as chair, with three citizen assessors and one lawyer.

Banda, by this time also his own justice minister, appointed the traditional leaders. They also reported to him. In an ironic twist of fate, Orton would be arraigned for treason in 1983 before the kind of traditional courts he had advocated for as attorney-general. His trial was a charade. The court denied him and Vera – herself Malawi’s first female lawyer – legal defence or the right to call witnesses.

He was initially sentenced to death on conviction, but Banda commuted this to life imprisonment. Orton spent the remainder of his life in solitary confinement at the Zomba prison in Malawi, where, in December 1992, he died at the age of 73.

It was the eve of Malawi’s transition from the despotism of the “Ngwazi”. In 1994, under the new multiparty constitution, Banda ran against and lost to Bakili Muluzi of the UDF, who himself had served Banda as minister. In 2003, a term-limited Muluzi sought to amend the constitution to extend his tenure.

Frustrated by the courts and the people, he chose a little-known economist and former deputy governor of Malawi’s central bank, Bingu wa Mutharika, as his successor. Following a royal falling-out between them, Bingu fled Muluzi’s UDF to start up the DPP. In 2009, Muluzi sought to return to presidential politics, but the courts ruled him permanently term-limited.

Seeking to consolidate power, Bingu tapped his own brother, Arthur Peter, as his closest adviser and minister, before installing him formally as his chosen successor as DPP leader. When Bingu died suddenly in 2012, his brother attempted to short-circuit the constitutional line of succession by hiding his demise and then exporting his body to South Africa in the hope that some malefaction could be invented to stop the vice-president from taking over.

He failed and the body of his older brother suffered the indignity of being buried in a state of considerable putrefaction. A man who could do that to the remains of his brother and benefactor should not have been entrusted with power, but in 2014 the people of Malawi did.

Back to the future

In the end, the country got tired of the despotic sleaze and cronyism of Peter Mutharika. Forcing him out, however, produced a drama fit for the script of Back to the Future. After being thrown out of power in 1994 following the 30 despotic years of the “Ngwazi”, the MCP was reluctantly accepted by Malawians this time as the vehicle for their political progress.

In doing so, however, they forced it to form alliances with nine other parties in the Tonse (together) Alliance, providing the kind of broad platform for what would become a sweeping victory and constraint on abuse of power.

To resist the Tonse Alliance, the Mutharika family made up with the Muluzis, enabling Atupele, Muluzi’s son, to become Mutharika’s running mate on the losing ticket.

The result is a rousing tale of democracy in all its messiness and inspiration. In all this, the people of Malawi found the voice to defend their democracy. When, therefore, Mutharika sought to oust their chief justice and eviscerate their judiciary, they rose as one to defend it.

In an unspoken understanding, Malawi’s judges have earned trust as the representatives of the only institution capable of holding the balance of power against the machinations of these resilient political families. It is an African example that should command attention beyond its own borders. 

Chidi Odinkalu is a former chair of Nigeria’s National Human Rights Commission and works with the Open Society Foundations.

The Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Condemns Xenophobic Attacks against Foreign Nationals in South Africa

The Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network (SAHRDN) calls on the Government of South Africa to immediately adopt measures that guarantee the protection of foreign truck drivers from the ongoing violence, intimidation, and harassment that is occurring in the country.

Since the start of July 2020, calls were made by several local organizations, including the All Truck Drivers Foundation (ATDF), for a national truck shutdown over the hiring of foreign nationals in South Africa. Actions taken by the ATDF thus far have included blocking several roads across the country, looting, torching of trucks and attacks of foreign national drivers. Furthermore, several reports indicate that there are also widespread plans to attack foreign-owned shops across the country. 

“The attacks on foreign nationals in South Africa, particularly those who come from other parts of Africa and Southeast Asia, are not new”, said Simphiwe Sidu, Legal Advisor of the SAHRDN. “What we are witnessing is part of a larger societal issue concerning the ongoing systemic challenge of achieving an equal society, particularly in relation to race, class and nationality”, added Miss Sidu

The Constitution of South Africa is founded on the values of equality and the creation of a non-racial and non-sexist society. Section 9 of the Constitution guarantees the right to equality and equal protection and benefit of the law for every person, including foreign nationals who are within the borders of South Africa. In addition, South Africa is a party to a number of international human rights instruments, which promote the right to equality and non-discrimination. Some of these instruments include the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which all prohibit discrimination and guarantee the equal protection of every person according to the law.

According to previously published reports by Xenowatch, more than 300 deaths and 900 physical assaults related to xenophobia have occurred since 1994 in South Africa. Additionally, more than 100 000 foreign nationals have been displaced within this period. Although the South African Government has recently adopted a National Action Plan to combat xenophobia, research shows that the attacks continue to worsen, and little has been done by the criminal justice system of the country to hold perpetrators of such actions accountable.

While President Cyril Ramaphosa has previously spoken out against the attacks on foreign nationals, we believe that there further needs to be a strong demonstration of leadership from all sectors of government in order to protect the rights and interests of all foreign nationals in the country. The SAHRDN embraces the spirit of Ubuntu and Pan-Africanism, and we call on Mr. Ramaphosa as both the President of South Africa and Chairperson of the African Union to safeguard the unity and protection of all Africans, by ensuring that:

  1. The Police and every other relevant stakeholder to immediately investigate the criminal acts and ensure that perpetrators are brought to justice for the harm done.
  2. Government needs to take urgent measures in reforming and implementing the National Action Plan to combat Xenophobia, by inviting all relevant stakeholders, including Civil Society Organizations and the public for comments.
  3. Government needs to urgently tackle the root cause of Xenophobia in South Africa, including eradicating inequalities in the country in order to promote peace and stability, within the framework of the South African Constitution and any other relevant instruments.
  4. Government should promote the founding values of the Constitution by seeking to ensure the need for equitable access of services for every person who lives in the country.

Southern Africa Human Rights Round-up

The Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network and Maverick Citizen launched the Southern Africa Weekly Human Rights Roundup, aimed at highlighting important human rights news in Southern Africa. The Human Rights Roundup integrates efforts of human rights defenders and facilitates evidence-based engagement with key stakeholders, and institutions on the human rights situation across the region.

This issue focuses on the impact of Covid-19 on workers’ rights across Southern Africa.

The restrictive measures imposed by governments to combat the spread of the pandemic has resulted in economies shrinking, businesses closing and severe deindustrialisation across Southern Africa.

As a result there has been large scale job and livelihood losses. Those who have been lucky to preserve their jobs have been forced by lockdown measures to work from home.

Workers in the essential services have experienced long hours. In many countries, workers in such essential services, which are often also high risk, have not been given adequate personal protective equipment (PPEs) that protects them from exposure to the virus. This has resulted in workplace tension manifested by strikes in many countries. 

Covid-19 added pressures to an already battered workforce in a region characterized by a large informal sector, eroded earnings, high unemployment, casualization of labour, gender inequalities. Vulnerable workers such as vendors, informal traders (self-employed), migrant workers, asylum seekers and undocumented people have suffered the most including facing evictions for non payment of rentals and starvation because they are not normally covered by social grants restricted to citizens.

At this point, there is only anecdotal evidence on the true cost of this devastating impact, especially from the private sector because, other than in South Africa, no governments offered stimulus packages for industry nor financial support to workers. Whilst concrete evidence will be too early to expect, we present a preliminary gloomy picture of how workers’ rights, safety and well being in Southern Africa have been affected. Regrettably, the situation is expected to deteriorate further. 

Health Workers and Protective Personal Equipment (PPE)

Southern Africa is notorious for weak health systems characterised by poor public health infrastructure and inadequate number of health workers. Many countries failed to ensure PPE was available in adequate quantities for health workers. Most governments did not adhere to directives on working safely in line with WHO guidelines on Getting your workplace ready for Covid-19: How Covid-19 spreads

The failure to provide public health workers with PPE resulted in strikes, picketing and demonstrations. In Tanzania, for example, one nurse summed up the situation facing thousands of health workers across Southern Africa when she had this to say:

“I have been working at Amana Regional Referral Hospital for 10 years. Here is what my normal day looks like: I do not have any PPE, but I commute in public transport. How am I supposed to protect myself and others? How am I supposed to protect my family? We are struggling… people are demoralised.”

In March, doctors and nurses in Zimbabwe protested against the government’s failure to provide them with PPE and adequately equip public hospitals to combat the Covid-19 outbreak. In an application filed on 5 April, the Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights (ZADHR) approached the High Court, arguing that they were at risk of contracting the virus. 

The Food Federation and Allied Workers Union of Zimbabwe (FFAWUZ) was forced to approach the Ministry of Labour and Social Services with an urgent appeal to get adequate PPE and other necessary amenities during the 21 day lockdown as some employers failed to protect workers especially in the food industry. 

In April, healthcare workers in Lesotho went on strike following failed attempts to engage the government on how to obtain protective gear, training and a risk allowance.

Also in April in Eswatini the Swaziland Democratic Nurses Union (Swadnu), resolved to take the Eswatini government to court for gross negligence, and to compel the government to supply adequate PPE to all healthcare workers. This came after a nurse at Raleigh Fitkin Memorial (RFM) hospital tested positive for Covid-19 and 10 other nurses were isolated.

On 28 April, South Africa’s Department of Employment and Labour issued a directive giving clear guidance on mandatory safety measures that employers needed to put in place to protect employees. 

The C-19 People’s Coalitionrepresenting more than 300 civil society organizationshowever raised concern that the directive, while welcome, came over a month after lockdown commenced, thereby endangering people in the workplace. The Coalition also noted that many workplaces continued to ignore worker’s rights with some workplaces failing to provide basic safety measures. 

On 1 May, a number of trade unions in South Africa, the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) and community health workers picketed outside Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in commemoration of workers’ day. They too cited incidents of healthcare workers not being given the requisite PPE to protect themselves. 

They also called for the proper training of community health workers and that all frontline healthcare workers be screened and tested for Covid-19 as a matter of priority, absent of which industrial action would follow.  

Mineworkers’ rights violated

Thousands of mine workers in the DRC were subjected to enforced quarantine at Tenke Fungurume copper and cobalt mine for two months. They held a successful strike on 23 May that led to the payment of a special allowance of US$600 to the 6000 mineworkers forcibly quarantined. The workers were also demanding to be paid for the overtime that they worked during the quarantine period. Work continued at the mine during the quarantine because mining is considered an essential service under Congolese law.

In March, IndustriALL Global Union reported that the Mineworkers Union of Zambia successfully campaigned for alcohol breathalyzer tests to be discontinued as they can easily spread the coronavirus resulting in some mining companies that include Mopane Copper Mines, Lubambe Copper Mine, Kanshanshi and Barrick Lumwana complying. Additionally, biometric systems in which workers used fingers were also reported as unsafe.

With the complicity of the unions, around two-thirds of South Africa’s 450,000 mineworkers returned to work to face the dangers of coronavirus on pain of starvation when the first stage of lockdown ended on 16 April. During the first 21 days of lockdown, employees were paid, but when it was extended a further 14 days, the employers in the Mineral Council refused to extend wage payments.

Mine owners say they have “plans” to operate safely at the pits. Work conditions in the pits, however, preclude social distancing. Workers go down into the pits packed in cages and work closely in teams at the face without visors or facemasks. 

Lay offs and unpaid leave in the transport industry

Travel Bus Company Intercape sent letters to its employees in Botswana, Mozambique and Zimbabwe notifying them it will temporarily lay them off starting 1 May 2020. The April letter informed employees they would receive their April salaries and that the temporary layoff would be for May, June and July 2020.  Employees affected were told not to expect a salary for these months.  

Forced paid leave has become the most direct consequence of Covid-19 on the labour market and no industry symbolises this than the airline industry.

Restrictions to international travel affect African airlines such as Ethiopian Airlines, Egyptair, Kenya Airways, and South African Airways, which are large employers and have linkages to other domestic businesses.

The first effects were the immediate partial unemployment of airline staff.  Zimbabwe’s state-owned airline put workers on indefinite unpaid leave after revenue dried up. The perennially loss-making national carrier said it would retain skeleton staff for ad hoc operations and airworthiness compliance, adding that wages remained its biggest cost. 

At South African Airways (SAA), the majority of the national carrier’s estimated 4,708 employees have not been paid for May. Most staff are on unpaid absence. Zazi Nsibanyoni-Mugambi, President of the South African Cabin Crew Association (Sacca), one of the major unions at the flagship carrier, told The Africa Report that workers have not been paid for May. “And not even the benefits have been paid – like, medical aid subsidies, Unemployment Insurance Fund contributions, pensions and all of those things. That’s also been stopped.”  

Workers rendered redundant overnight 

The United Nations says about 20 million jobs could be lost globally.

In April, 216 companies throughout Mozambique notified the Labour Ministry that they were suspending or reducing their activities in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, affecting 6,400 workers, according to the General Inspector of Labour, Joaquim Siuta.

Siuta added that, under these circumstances, companies should pay their workers 75% of their wages for the first month they were laid off, 50% for the second month, and 25% for the third month. The National Social Security Institute (INSS), he insisted, would only pay sickness benefit to workers with a hospital document proving they were ill. Siuta thus dashed hopes that the INSS might cash in its investments in order to pay wages to workers who have lost their jobs.

The majority of countries in the region rely heavily on the tourism sector and Covid-19 has hit this sector the hardest.

In April, the leading hotelier in Zimbabwe closed 21 of its hotels and strategic business units around the country. In an internal memo signed by the company’s acting human resources director, Believe Dirorimwe, and addressed to senior managers and staff, every affected employee’s salary was cut by 50%.

Eswatini’s Minister of Tourism and Environmental Affairs, Moses Vilakati, on 19 May, spoke to CNBC Africa on how Covid-19 has impacted the country’s recovery plan. He reported that some hotels have closed indefinitely, resulting in retrenchments and huge job losses. Over 26% of employment in the country is via the tourism industry. 

South Africa‘s biggest non-food retailer Edcon, on 11 June, served 22,000 of its employees with notices of retrenchments. This is more than half of the group’s 39,000 full-time and temporary employees.

So far, a number of African startups have announced layoffs, placed staff on indefinite unpaid leave or implemented salary cuts exclusively and this is in addition to job cuts. For example Yoco which claims over 150 employees on its payroll, announced that it was downsizing significantly.  

One of the first indigenous movie streaming platforms in Africa, iROKOtv, announced that, as from May 2020, 28% of its employees will be put on an indefinite unpaid leave of absence. 

Salary cuts 

Faced with reduced business, employers across the region also arbitrarily imposed salary cuts.

In May, Lesotho Times reported that factory workers were being issued M800 salary subsidies by the Lesotho government to cushion them from the closure of businesses which were deemed non-essential such as textile companies.

On 13 May, The Patriot on Sunday reported that the government of Botswana was headed for a fresh showdown with employees following its decision to freeze overtime payments for the essential public servants.

In South Africa, President Ramaphosa announced taking a 33% pay cut motivating his entire executive and all nine provincial premiers to also take a similar percentage in pay cuts for three months. The cumulative cuts, estimated to be worth around R13.4m, were donated to the Covid-19 Solidarity Fund.  

Leading hotelier African Sun also cut salaries for most of its employees including executives and senior managers by 50% as the effects of Covid-19 took a toll on the hospitality industry. 

The plight of migrant workers 

7.9% of workers in Africa are migrant workers and the majority of migration is intra-continental. In Southern Africa, South Africa is the magnet for millions of migrants but countries like BotswanaNamibiaTanzaniaDRC also host many. Migrants already face a slew of challenges, including accessing healthcare, even in normal circumstances due to lack of health insurance, cost, administrative hurdles, lack of access to facilities, and language barriers. Additionally, many migrants are frontline workers who keep people healthy, safe, and fed. Social protection for these workers, if received at all, is typically limited to some work injury compensation or health benefits, and almost never includes unemployment assistance.

It has been the South African government’s long-standing objective to reduce migration, and the pandemic has provided a cynical opportunity to do so.

On 24 April, Finance Minister Tito Mboweni urged companies to allow more South Africans to participate in the economy than foreign nationals, citing businesses such as restaurants, spaza shops, informal trading and so on. These are the very spaces occupied by most migrant workers.

There is a danger that post Covid-19, most migrant workers from the region will find themselves jobless if countries insist on inward-looking policies to try and placate local populations with populist, nationalist solutions. 

What do the Unions say?

The Southern Africa Trade Union Coordination Council (SATUCC) acknowledged that the pandemic had been very disastrous to workers’ rights. The council further noted that the impact was worse on un-unionised workers such as migrant workers, domestic workers, farm workers and those in the informal sector.

As a result SATUCC is now working on including these categories of workers in its work. In an interview on 4 May, the Executive Secretary of SATUCC, Mavis A Koogotsitse, admitted that the pandemic caught trade unions napping. She stressed that unions should now think beyond the traditional ways of mobilising in the workplace.

The European Network of Equality Bodies (EQUINET) expressed concern over what it referred to as “a new and scary discrimination trend,” that has arisen worldwide against those that are in the frontline of action noting how the daily lives of nurses, doctors and healthcare workers are increasingly being affected by discriminatory attitudes and harassment.

The International Labor Organization noted with concern how Covid-19 containment measures have threatened to increase relative poverty levels among the world’s informal economy workers thereby exacerbating already existing vulnerabilities and inequalities. Among other recommendations, the ILO emphasised the need for policies that reduce the exposure of informal workers to the virus; ensure that those infected have access to health care; provide income and food support to individuals and their families; and prevent damage to the economic fabric of countries. 

Conclusion

The impact of Covid-19 on the labour market has been huge. The healthcare shortfalls exposed by Covid-19 in Africa, led Human Rights Watch to call on governments to urgently address healthcare deficiencies in line with international human rights law, including the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. It is highly important that labour policies, laws and regulations be revamped to make them as pandemic-proof as possible if workers are not to bear the same brunt in future. Meanwhile, mechanisms aimed at redressing a litany of labour infringements against workers during the Covid-19 pandemic need to be urgently conceived and implemented. As Guy Ryder, the Director-General of the International Labor Organisation (ILO) aptly said:

“Workers and businesses are facing catastrophe, in both developed and developing economies …We have to move fast, decisively, and together. The right, urgent, measures, could make the difference between survival and collapse.” 

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 adviser 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. 

CALL BY AFRICAN CIVIL SOCIETY FOR REFORM IN THE USA TO ADDRESS STRUCTURAL AND SYSTEMIC INEQUALITY, RACISM AND INJUSTICE

The Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network (SAHRDN or the Defenders Network), DITSHWANELO – The Botswana Centre for Human Rights and Africa Judges and Jurists Forum (AJJF) wrote to the President of the Senate and the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives to highlight the ongoing recurrent pattern of unlawful arrests and killings of persons of color by the police. The petition was presented on behalf of civil society organisations and individuals from across the African continent where the letter that was signed by 78 organizations and over 1036 individuals calling for the United States of America to address the ongoing structural and systemic inequality, racism and injustice.

Southern Africa Human Rights Roundup

Issue 3, 26– 1 May 2020

The Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network and Maverick Citizen launched the Southern Africa Weekly Human Rights Roundup, aimed at highlighting important human rights news in Southern Africa. The Human Rights Roundup integrates efforts of human rights defenders and facilitates evidence-based engagement with key stakeholders, and institutions on the human rights situation across the region.

This week we examine how southern African countries are responding to the dual paradoxical objectives of ensuring that measures to protect people from Covid-19 do not negatively affect human rights and the strengthening of democracy.

The number of Covid-19 cases continues to grow in southern Africa, threatening scheduled elections and democratic processes.

However, in the words of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, on 27 April, emergency powers invoked to fight Covid-19 “should not be a weapon governments can wield to quash dissent, control the population, and even perpetuate their time in power”.

As a recent article in Maverick Citizen explains, the UN has reiterated time and time again that respect for all human rights — economic, social, civil and political — is fundamental to the success of the fight against Covid-19.

Nonetheless, the chorus of complaints about how Covid-19 measures are deliberately being made repressive by some governments in southern Africa — to produce political outcomes as opposed to public health outcomes — is increasing in volume. 

With Covid-19 hanging over their heads, African governments are faced with a difficult choice: to go ahead with scheduled elections and risk accelerating infections or to postpone and compromise their democracy, including by creating potential leadership legitimacy crises.

Some countries, such as South Africa and Zimbabwe, have already suspended political activity and elections due to fears of spreading the virus. Others like Malawi and Zambia appear to be proceeding with elections as planned or as ordered by the court while implementing measures that have the effect of limiting the enjoyment of fundamental rights in a way that affects the potential freeness and fairness of the polls.

Concerns about preparedness from election authorities and political parties have also been considered.

The African Union’s governance instruments affirm that “regular elections constitute a key element of the democratisation process and, therefore, are essential ingredients for good governance, the rule of law, the maintenance and promotion of peace, security, stability and development”.

It is therefore important to prevent Covid-19 from not just killing people but also from killing electoral democracy.

On 19 March, South Africa’s Electoral Court granted an urgent application by the Electoral Commission to postpone all municipal by-elections and associated voter registration activities that were originally scheduled for March-May 2020.

On 26 March, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission announced that all by-elections and other electoral activities had been suspended until further notice as part of precautionary measures to protect its employees and the general public from the pandemic.

In Malawi elections ordered by the court are around the corner, in July. The impact of Covid-19 on this vote has been topical in the past month. The general view is that adequate logistical preparation for the election in important key result areas would be difficult within the timeframe. These include procurement of voting materials, recruitment and training of election officials and enabling administrative processes such as voter registration and setting up of election management infrastructure in constituencies.

Voting procedures would have to be adjusted to comply with lockdown regulations.

Altogether it is a mammoth logistical undertaking that requires additional resources, both material and financial, that Malawi does not have. As political analyst Taona Mwanyisa argues, if Malawi goes ahead with the election amid the pandemic there will be serious hurdles to overcome. 

The opposition has expressed the worry that President Peter Mutharika is going to use the pandemic to delay the election and cling on to power.

Malawi is in a difficult situation because the election dates are part of a court order. Any postponement could have far-reaching implications on the health of democracy at a time when there are already significant questions about the legitimacy of Mutharika remaining in power when his term expired.

He has remained in office merely because of technical aspects of the law that will not allow a vacuum at State House. Questions have been raised about the extent of his powers, given that he is in office but unelected.

The AU governance instruments are clear that “democratic elections are the basis of the authority of any representative government”.

Such is the extent of the impact of Covid-19 on electoral contestation in Malawi that efforts by Mutharika’s government to impose lockdown conditions have been widely rejected by the population, resulting in protests and court challenges.

Law enforcement agencies have threatened to use force to ensure compliance with lockdown. 

Threats in 2021

Southern African elections scheduled for next year could also be affected.

Information on whether Zambia will proceed with its 2021 poll remains sketchy. The country is set to conduct its first ever-electronic population census in August this year. But even that has not been officially announced.

Ominous signs that authorities in Zambia are using Covid-19 measures to clamp down on enjoyment of fundamental rights are showing. There have been several reports of police brutality to enforce regulations. The Minister for Lusaka threatened to whip the spokesperson of the Human Rights Commission after he condemned police for whipping people for allegedly violating rules.

Leading lawyer John Sangwa has been disbarred administratively from practicing for opposing a parliamentary Bill centralising executive power and removing effective separation of powers. 

Independent television station Prime Television has been forcibly closed under the guise of protecting public interest and public safety. Restrictions to civic space — oxygen for citizen voices — prevent activists from drawing attention to human rights emergencies and risk creating a wider human rights crisis.

That, after all, is the lesson of China’s suppression of doctors who tried to warn about Covid-19 in early January.

Allegations of weaponisation of the law to restrict civic space and attack human rights activists and institutions — often described as “judicial persecution” or “persecution through prosecution” — keep arising in Zambia.

In Lesotho, where embattled Prime Minister Thomas Thabane is under pressure to resign, fresh elections can happen at any time.

Police Commissioner Holomo Molibeli has raised serious allegations that there were plans to have him killed but was “a free man only because Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) commander Lieutenant General Mojalefa Letsoela defied orders to arrest him” during the army’s deployment by the prime minister on Saturday 25 April.

The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) raises concern that, while there may be broad political consensus regarding the postponement of elections, the legal basis for such postponement and the modality of governance between the end of term of the current parliament and new elections have raised political and constitutional contestations.

Many constitutions are silent on what should happen if elections fail to take place for one reason or another.

Notwithstanding the devastating effects of Covid-19, the pandemic presents an opportunity for election authorities and legislators in southern Africa to better organise themselves and put in place measures and plan Bs that ensure their citizens are able to exercise their franchise to vote at any given time. We, therefore, agree with Thomas White that “while these measures may mitigate the spread of coronavirus in the short term, they do create another risk that Covid-19 will be used as a smokescreen to rationalise attacks on democracy”.

Status of lockdowns in southern Africa

Southern African countries have continued operating under lockdown conditions with minimum or no cross-border travel. 

As South Africa entered its final week of a 35-day lockdown, the government announced it would gradually ease the restrictions in five stages from 30 April, citing economic concerns. President Cyril Ramaphosa authorised the deployment of an additional 73,180 soldiers to help police enforce lockdown regulations until June, raising concerns in civil society about possible abuses, some calling it “a strategic blunder against an invincible enemy”.

Zimbabwe and Namibia have also remained under strict lockdowns that are scheduled to end on 3 and 4 May respectively.  On 21 April, Lesotho extended a 21-day national lockdown by another 14 days despite not having recorded any cases. On 22 April, Eswatini reversed a decision to relax coronavirus restrictions after infections almost doubled to 31 in one week. During April, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the World Health Organisation director-general, laid out six criteria that should guide countries as they consider lifting restrictions.

These include but are not limited to ensuring that transmission is controlled, health systems capacities are in place to test, isolate, treat every case and trace every contact, and that communities are fully educated, engaged and empowered to adjust to the new norm.

Lockdowns and police brutality

Civil society continues recording cases of torture, arbitrary arrest and murder of citizens by law enforcement agencies in all countries.

Police and soldiers in South Africa are accused of assaulting people they allege were breaching lockdown regulations. In one incident, riot police went as far as to fire rubber bullets at nurses protesting shortages in personal protective equipment. To date, reports indicate that eight people have been killed by law enforcement officers and at least 200 cases of police brutality have been recorded.

In Eswatini, the police commissioner warned journalists against writing “negative news” about the kingdom. The warning comes in the wake of the detention of former Times of Eswatini journalist Eugene Dube. The Economic Freedom Fighters of Swaziland issued a statement strongly condemning “the psychological warfare, abuse of power and demonising and torture of innocent journalists and its members by the police”. 

In ZimbabweLovemore Zvokusekwa was arrested for allegedly originating a statement that brought the president into “disrepute”.  There was general outrage when police in Mutare arrested an opposition member of parliament, Regai Tsunga, on 21 April for distributing food as part of measures to mitigate the impact of Covid-19 measures on poor people facing starvation. Ruling party MPs have not faced a similar fate for doing the same thing. To date, reports indicate that there have been 190 assaults by the police, 12 attacks on journalists, 7,000 arrests — mainly people moving around in search of food — and one case of malicious damage to property.

Lockdowns and poverty

Severe hunger continues to threaten southern Africa’s efforts to enforce lockdowns. In its annual Global Report on Food Crises, released on 21 April, the UN World Food Program reported “the number of people battling acute hunger is on the rise again”. Although research for the publication was conducted before the coronavirus outbreak, the WFP supposes the pandemic “may push even more families and communities into deeper distress”. 

On 24 April, a Zimbabwean man was arrested and charged with undermining the authority of President Emmerson Mnangagwa by allegedly circulating a message on social media accusing the country’s leader of ineptitude for not implementing a rescue package like that of his South African counterpart.

Malawi’s lockdown remains suspended until the government puts in place necessary socio-economic protection measures as ordered by the High Court. Authorities must strike a balance between enforcing compliance and ensuring respect for fundamental human rights. The government of South Africa has led the way in this. It allocated R500-billion towards relieving the plight of those most affected by the pandemic.

Access to water

The absence of clean and potable water, a key element in fighting the spread of Covid-19, remains a huge challenge in the region. 

On 21 April, Community Water Alliance, a Zimbabwean civil society organisation, condemned the Zimbabwe Republic Police for arresting one of its staff members whilst she was on her way to help raise funds for sanitisers and public water points — even though she was in possession of a letter from the City of Harare giving her permission to do so.

South Africa should be applauded for availing R20-billion to municipalities tasked with provision of emergency water supply, increased sanitation of public transport and facilities, and providing food and shelter for the homeless.

Covid-19 testing, treatment and vaccination

Health experts have expressed worry over a significant rise in reported Covid-19 cases in Africa. This has prompted most governments to ramp up tests in addition to lockdowns.

South Africa has conducted more than 161,000 tests after rolling out a mass testing exercise earlier in April. On 14 April, the UN’s resident coordinator in Angola announced an additional grant of $12.5-million to combat Covid-19.

The WHO issued a warning that “there is currently no evidence that people who have recovered from Covid-19 and have antibodies are protected from a second infection”. This was after some governments were considering issuing “immunity passports” or “risk-free certificates”  that would enable individuals to travel or to return to work assuming that they are protected against re-infection.

Conclusion 

The Covid-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on two fronts: health and economy. With the exception of South Africa, the lack of government support for most citizens in the region has been exacerbated by the excessive use of force by authorities in the name of enforcing lockdowns. Denied the right to food, water and other basics, democracy is likely to be the next casualty for citizens as other important events such as elections have been caught in the Covid-19 crosshairs.

Whilst it can be argued that the postponement of these processes is important to constrain the spread of the virus, the implications are very worrisome. Measures ought to be taken to ensure that the interests of human rights and democracy are not unnecessarily sacrificed on the altar of the health emergency.

Southern African democracies are fragile and, in enforcing lockdowns and restrictions, authorities are urged to exercise restraint to limit further regression during this tremendous stress test. 

Arnold Tsunga is a human rights lawyer, the director of the Africa Regional Programme of the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) and the immediate past-chairperson of the SAHRDN. Tatenda Mazarura is a Woman Human Rights Defender (WHRD), a professional rapporteur and an election expert. Mark Heywood is editor of Maverick Citizen.

Yemen: Urgent Measures Needed to Protect Civilians from COVID-19

We partnered with 29 other organizations and issued a statement on the need for urgent measures in Yemen to protect Civilians from Covid-19.

The conflict in Yemen is entering its sixth year, resulting in what is considered the worst man-made humanitarian crisis in the world. On 10 April, the first COVID-19 case was confirmed in the country. The warring parties, donor states, the United Nations (UN) and the European Union (EU) must take immediate and urgent steps to mitigate COVID-19’s potential outbreak and catastrophic impact in Yemen.

In the face of COVID-19, civilians in Yemen are particularly and acutely vulnerable. Due to the war, the health system has been severely damaged. The warring parties have obstructed and impeded humanitarian aid. Other contagious diseases have spread, including in detention facilities. Thousands of civilians have been killed and injured; more than 3.6 million people have been internally displaced; and over 80 per cent of Yemen’s population is now dependent on humanitarian aid, including for food, shelter and other basic services. According to the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen, Lise Grande, “ten million people are a step away from famine and seven million are malnourished.”

Addressing the Health, Humanitarian and Economic Crises

The health sector in Yemen has been decimated, the economy has crumbled, and the humanitarian response has been repeatedly and blatantly obstructed and interfered with by the warring parties.

The routine destruction and repeated occupation of health care facilities, as well as the killing and wounding of medical workers, has weakened Yemen’s health system, inflicted widespread suffering on civilians, and contributed to making the country increasingly vulnerable to health shocks like that posed by COVID-19. Only half of the country’s health facilities are functional. Many specialists, essential equipment, and supplies, including medicine, personal protective equipment, and ventilators, are scarcely available. In addition, Yemen has a recent history of outbreaks of communicable diseases, with the highest recorded number of suspected cholera cases in recent history.

The warring parties have blatantly obstructed and impeded the humanitarian response throughout the conflict, as well as weaponized the economy and food[1]. Yemeni civil servants, including some doctors and health workers, in different parts of the country, have not been paid their salaries for nearly two years. In 2019, the Group of Eminent International and Regional Experts on Yemen (GEE) concluded that “starvation may have been used as a method of warfare by all parties to the conflict.”

Some international organizations announced the suspension of certain aid to Yemen in late March as a response to Houthi interference in aid deliveries and misuse of funds [2]. The United States, the largest donor to Yemen, decided to cut humanitarian assistance on 27 March 2020, including funding that would help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The day before Yemen’s first COVID-19 case was announced, the World Food Programme said it was set to halve aid to parts of Yemen. An end to the interference in humanitarian aid by parties to the conflict is crucial, but the withdrawal of humanitarian aid, including life-saving supplies, at a time of urgent need risks creating an escalating catastrophe in Yemen.

Unsurprisingly, those already vulnerable—the displaced, those deprived of their liberty, refugees, migrants, the sick, hungry, and poor—have been and will be hit the hardest. In calling for the immediate lifting of international sanctions to prevent hunger crises in countries hit by COVID-19, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food urged the international community “to pay particular attention to the situation of civilians trapped in conflict settings, and notably those already experiencing acute violations of their right to food, such as in Yemen.”

Releasing Arbitrarily Held and Vulnerable Detainees and Improving Detention Conditions

Hundreds of civilians, including journalists and human rights defenders, have been arbitrarily detained and disappeared by the warring parties. Conditions of detention in Yemen are abysmal. Detention facilities are overcrowded, unsanitary, and have already witnessed the spread of contagious diseases. Health care is routinely not available and in some cases all together denied to detainees, while prison systems do not have the capacity, medical supplies or resources to respond to COVID-19.

These conditions put detainees and prisoners at heightened risk in times of a pandemic. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) warned that “in an overcrowded prison, once one person has COVID-19 it’s likely that hundreds of people will have it […] That means you’ll see a higher mortality rate in this prison population.”

In this context, the Group of Eminent International and Regional Experts on Yemen called on  parties to take effective measures to mitigate the spread of the disease, including by releasing prisoners and detainees who are “particularly vulnerable and exposed to substantial risk” in “appalling detention conditions.” In addition, a coalition of NGOs expressed grave concern over the situation of detainees and prisoners across the Middle East and North Africa, particularly in states where prisons and detention facilities are often overcrowded, unsanitary, and suffer from a lack of resources.

A Complete and Credible Ceasefire; an End to All Attacks against Civilians

Since September 2014 and the escalations of March 2015, the Yemeni government, Ansar Allah (Houthi) armed group, the Saudi/UAE-led coalition and its affiliated proxy forces have persistently committed serious violations of international humanitarian law and gross human rights abuses. Abuses have included unlawful airstrikes, indiscriminate shelling, the use of landmines, arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearances, torture, and the recruitment of children. Various efforts to achieve peace have failed. Accountability has been absent.

On 25 March 2020, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, echoing his appeal for a global ceasefire, called “on those fighting in Yemen to immediately cease hostilities, focus on reaching a negotiated political settlement and do everything possible to counter a potential outbreak of COVID-19”. Despite the calls for a cessation of hostilities in Yemen, fighting has continued with the Houthi shelling of a prison in Taiz killing five women, two young girls and a policewoman, and wounding nine, including six other women, two girls and a civilian man in Taiz. On 9 April 2020, the Saudi/UAE-led coalition declared a unilateral two-week ceasefire in Yemen. Civil society from around the world joined the appeal for a global ceasefire, including in Yemen. Yet to date, fighting has continued in Yemen. To ensure a response to COVID-19 is in fact possible, all parties to the conflict must commit to a ceasefire.

Adopting a Human Rights-Based Response to COVID-19

While the authorities in various parts of Yemen have a responsibility to take preventive measures and other steps to protect people in areas under their control from the spread of COVID-19, any response must respect human rights and fundamental freedoms. Any emergency measures should be necessary and proportionate. Yemenis must be informed of such measures, which should be time bound. The enforcement of emergency measures must be carried out in line with international law and without discrimination. In times of pandemic, access to information, including transparent coverage of the humanitarian situation and the spread of the virus in Yemen, is particularly crucial [3].

Times of crises have been repeatedly misused by those in power in Yemen to impose unlawful restrictions. Since September 2014 when Ansar Allah seized control over Sanaa, the warring parties have closed public spaces in the country, restricted the right to expression, and attacked, harassed, and detained journalists, media workers, activists and humanitarian workers.

Considering the dire need for immediate effective measures to be taken by all parties to the conflict and third parties in the face of this pandemic, we urge: The warring parties in Yemen, namely the Saudi/UAE-led coalition, internationally recognized government of Yemen, and Ansar Allah (Houthi) armed group to:

  • Immediately lift restrictions on humanitarian aid and critical life-saving goods going into and across Yemen and end all forms of interference with and obstruction of humanitarian operations. To this end, all parties must abide by international humanitarian aid norms and ensure that no aid is diverted or misused for political and financial gain. The warring parties must facilitate unimpeded access and movement of humanitarian aid, medical supplies, humanitarian workers, and life-saving commercial goods without interference or discrimination throughout Yemen; and end blockades, sieges and other actions that prevent or restrict humanitarian and essential commercial imports;
  • Immediately halt fighting across Yemen and implement a complete ceasefire on the ground. The warring parties should re-focus efforts on countering the outbreak of COVID-19 in Yemen, including through dialogue amongst the warring parties and the implementation of coordinated responses; and work with the UN Special Envoy to urgently restart comprehensive political negotiations to end the conflict;
  • Take urgent steps to reduce the prison population, and to disclose the fate of the disappeared. In this regard, the warring parties should:
    • Release all those arbitrarily detained in a manner which ensures the dignity, safety and security of those released;
    • Conduct a thorough review of the prison population and order the immediate release of “low-risk” detainees and prisoners and the particularly vulnerable, including children, the elderly and those with health conditions that make them more vulnerable to COVID-19;
    • Provide detainees with adequate sanitary installations, regular access to sanitary facilities and prompt accessible health care, including access to COVID-19 testing and adequate treatment on a standard equal to the general population;
    • Ensure access for recognized monitors of detention conditions to all detention facilities, official and unofficial;
    • Ensure that detainees are afforded the right to fair trial, and are provided with means of communication with the outside world.
  • Fulfil their obligations and duties under international law to protect and respect the rights of the Yemeni population in all parts of Yemen in their response to the COVID-19; and,
  • Come to an agreement to immediately begin Yemeni civil servant salary payments, with a priority for health workers, and work to facilitate other forms of support to Yemeni civilians.

The United Nations

Security Council

  • Take measures to ensure respect for a ceasefire in Yemen and a halt to acts of violence by all parties to the conflict in order to coordinate and carry out a response to the COVID-19 crisis.

Security Council and Human Rights Council

  • Demand that warring parties release individuals arbitrarily detained,  take urgent steps to improve conditions of detention and reduce the overall prison population, and demand an immediate end to the obstruction and interference with humanitarian aid and critical commercial imports;
  • Reiterate that accountability and redress are non-negotiable aspects of any sustainable peace.

Human Rights Council

  • Ensure the mandate of the GEE  includes collection and preservation of evidence of human rights violations and abuses, and provide all necessary support for the GEE  to monitor  the human rights and humanitarian effects of COVID-19 in Yemen, including the steps taken by the parties to the conflict to protect the right to health of the Yemen population.

The states, particularly those with influence over the warring parties, including the United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Union and its Member States:

  • Urgently and significantly increase funding for the full range of humanitarian programming in Yemen, including to support the call of the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen to maintain UN programs running;
  • Lift unilateral measures and reconsider funding cuts to Yemen which would affect the delivery of essential humanitarian services in facing the urgent threat of COVID-19 and pursue alternative, necessary prevention and mitigation measures to avoid obstruction and interference;
  • Increase the provision of basic services, medical supplies, treatment centers, field hospitals and prevention activities, as well as facilitate cooperative measures to avert and mitigate COVID-19 implications to avoid placing Yemenis at further unnecessary risk, particularly women, children, people with disabilities, the marginalized, internally displaced and refugees in northern areas, who are acutely vulnerable to the spread of the disease;
  • End all licensing for and deliveries of arms, ammunition and military equipment to all warring parties in Yemen to promote the implementation of a cessation of hostilities, in line with UN Security Council resolutions 2216 (2015) and 2511 (2020), the Arms Trade Treaty and the EU Common Position on Arms Exports;
  • Continue to effectively support the UN-led processes and tools to achieve an immediate and sustainable ceasefire in Yemen; and,
  • Support efforts related to achieving accountability and redress for violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law committed by all parties to the conflict.

Endorsing organizations:

  1. Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS)
  2. Mwatana for Human Rights
  3. Vredesactie
  4. The Conflict and Environment Observatory (CEOB)
  5. The Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network (SAHRDN)
  6. Asian Legal Resource Centre (ALRC)
  7. 11.11.11
  8. MENA Rights Group
  9. Campaign Against Arms Trade
  10. The African Centre for Democracy and Human Rights Studies (ACDHRS)
  11. CNCD-11.11.11
  12. GLAN | Global Legal Action Network
  13. Human Rights Clinic (Columbia Law School)
  14. ALQST for Human Rights
  15. Dhameer For Rights and Freedom
  16. Musaala for Human Rights
  17. Peace and Building Foundation
  18. Watch for Human Rights
  19. Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect
  20. International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH)
  21. Shadow World Investigations
  22. Action Corps
  23. Saferworld
  24. Yemen Relief and Reconstruction Foundation
  25. Yemeni Alliance Committee
  26. PAX for Peace
  27. The University Network for Human Rights
  28. Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR)
  29. Physicians for Human Rights
  30. Center for International Policy