Human Rights In Sadc: a Brave New World Beckons

It came to light a recent webinar that the SADC Parliamentary Forum envisages a human rights dispensation where state and non-state actors will no longer view each other as adversaries across the region


Imagine a SADC in which governments and civic society do not view each other as enemies but as partners in the protection and promotion of human rights? That is the region that the Southern African Development Community Parliamentary Forum is trying to build, primarily through its Standing Committee on Democratisation, Governance and Human Rights (DGHR).
On 7 December 2020, the DGHR – in collaboration with the Austrian Development Agency, GIZ and Amnesty International – hosted a webinar on “Enhancing the Role of Parliaments in the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights in the SADC Region through Engagement with National and Regional Human Rights State and Non-State Actors.”
In a dispensation where state and non-state actors view each other as adversaries and with no small amount of suspicion when it comes to human rights, the webinar could not have come at a better time for SADC.
Opening the virtual meeting, Secretary General of SADC PF, Boemo Sekgoma, said a new era of collaboration between states and civil society was needed to protect and promote human rights. “I accordingly wish to emphasise today the need for collective participation and concerted action for human rights to be implemented by all parties, with one buttressing and shouldering the other,” Sekgoma said.
“The Forum has often propounded that human rights are the concern of all, be it the state as duty bearer, citizens as rights holders, or civil society organisations and state actors as facilitators for human rights to be properly implemented.”
The Programme Manager (Democracy & Governance) of the SADC Parliamentary Forum, Sheuneni Kurasha, who moderated the discussion, said there was a need to close the gaps between governments, legislators, civic society and the general citizenry when it came to the human rights discourse and what the different stakeholders’ roles in this were. “Let’s be honest, parliaments can be perceived as boring institutions because they are steeped in traditions and procedures,” Kurasha observed. “Civil society has to invest more in understanding how parliaments operate and what the procedures are if they are to have a greater impact in terms of collaborating in protecting and promoting human rights. SADC PF provides training of how to access and work with parliaments.”
“There is need for an awareness of what opportunities are there (for progressive engagement) and where they lie in terms of parliamentary structures and processes. We should shift from the predominant approach of reacting to rights abuses to a proactive approach which builds collaboration, prevention, enforcement, empowering citizens and strengthening governance and set a basis for accountability. This will ultimately lead to a sea change in the dominant human rights narrative in the region.”
It was an invitation to form synergies that was welcomed by all participants, among them legislators and representatives of civil society from across southern Africa. Deprose Muchena, the Eastern and Southern Africa Director of Amnesty International, said: “The SADC Parliamentary Forum is one of the more open institutions across southern Africa. … SADC PF is a legislative norm entrepreneur, through its model laws, and this engenders confidence that a strong human rights dimension can be deployed to address (gaps in observance and implementation of human rights).”
The CEO of SADC Lawyers Association, Stanley Nyamanhindi weighed in: “The SADC PF is catalysing the work of civil society across the region. It is a regional leader in setting the agenda. The memoranda of understanding with various organisations such as Amnesty International show that … SADC PF and civil society can work together to strengthen democratic processes.”
The SADC PF cannot enforce standards or compel member states of the Parliamentary Forum to implement laws or establish institutions that advance rights. But it can – and is – doing much, along with other arms the Forum, to foster understanding and engender the kind of goodwill necessary to get all stakeholders on the same page.
One such arm that is abetting the SADC PF’s efforts is the Regional Parliamentary Model Laws Oversight Committee, which monitors progress on the domestication of model laws and assists in identification of bottlenecks in adoption of the Forum’s recommendations.
As Ms Sekgoma pointed out, “although the Forum has a dedicated Standing Committee on Human Rights, other standing committees also fully implement human rights within the paradigm of their own committee agendas.
“Over the years, the Forum has positioned itself as a hallmark for human rights advocacy through parliaments, and the consecration of this advocacy exercise are indeed the model laws developed by the Forum such as SADC Model Law on Child Marriage and Protecting those already in marriage, the SADC Model Law on HIV and AIDS and the SADC Model Law on Elections, which are grounded firmly on regional and international human rights law.”
Foundation for Co-operation
While the adversarial nature of relations between governments, civil society and legislators today makes it hard to imagine a day soon in which the human rights discourse will be held cordially, there is a basis for such optimism.
All told, contributions from participants in the SADC PF webinar indicated huge gaps between the ideal state of relations among stakeholders in protection and promotion of human rights, but they also gave indications of green shoots of progress, in no small part thanks to the Forum’s efforts.
Makhumbo Munthali, the Director of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights at the Malawi Human Rights Commission, said the Forum could assist legislative bodies to establish human rights committees within parliaments. Such committees would allow legislators to test existing and proposed laws for sensitivity to human rights considerations.
“The SADC PF (DGHR) Committee has been very helpful in assisting with best practices in areas of elections, and this is something we need to build on,” Muthali added.
The Malawi Human Rights Commission, he said, had made contributions to legislation on access to information, HIV and AIDS, trafficking in persons and gender equality. Munthali also said the commission submitted annual reports on the sector to parliament, and this served to keep legislators abreast of the human rights situation in the country.
Munthali said SADC PF had already made positive contributions to human rights observance in Malawi, citing the example of the incorporation of the Model Law on Eradicating Child Marriages. “There is a window of opportunity to bring in more SADC Parliamentary Forum model laws … There is greater scope for SADC PF and human rights commissions to co-operate on promoting domestication of model laws.”
In Namibia – which is a founding SADC PF member and host of the SADC PF Secretariat that has been quite active in advancing the Forum’s agenda – several laws have been passed within the arena of human rights.
Contributing to the webinar, Advocate John Walters explained that Namibia’s primary institution for protection and promotion of human rights was the Office of the Ombudsman, which he heads.
“The Ombudsman submits an annual report to the Houses of Parliament,” Walters said. “However, parliament uses its discretion to consider and debate the Ombudsman’s report, and that is a gap. We need parliament to debate the report, otherwise recommendations remain unimplemented. There is too much ad hoc engagement…
“The SADC Parliamentary Forum Standing Committee (on DGHR) can assist us by advocating for a debate on these reports and implementation of recommendations so that they are not just filed away. You can help us to move from norms to actual implementation.”
The situation in Madagascar, according to Mireille Rabenoro, who is the president of that country’s Independent National Commission on Human Rights, is constrained by polarisation in parliament. A whipping system, which is also prevalent in other southern African countries such as Zimbabwe, means legislators consider reports on human rights issues from a partisan perspective.
Because of that, a proposed law on the rights of children to an identity is in limbo. “I see a need for greater linkage between the SADC PF and the activities of the national legislature in Madagascar,” said Rabenoro. “The SADC PF played a vital role in ensuring that the 2018 elections in Madagascar were fair…
“SADC PF can provide training and sharing of knowledge on matters of human rights and this will help legislators because SADC PF can have an even bigger voice than national human rights commissions.”