Five things you didn't know about human rights in Swaziland

By Lisa Van Wyk South Africa,

When people think of Swaziland, a tiny country bordered by South Africa and Mozambique, they usually focus on its beautiful landscapes. 

But behind all this picturesque beauty lie a few ugly truths. Here are a five things you might not know about Swaziland.

1. Swaziland is the last absolute monarchy in Africa (and one of the last few left on Earth)

The monarchy has ruled largely by decree since 1973. The current king, Mswati III, became King in 1986 at the age of 18. Swaziland’s new constitution came into force in 2006 and includes a Bill of Rights. But these rights are limited in the Constitution and severely restricted in practice, including the rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association. Political parties can exist, but cannot participate in elections.

2. There is little or no freedom of expression.

Media is tightly controlled in Swaziland, with the government controlling both television and radio broadcasting stations. The government also owns one of the only two daily newspapers. The other paper, the Times of Swaziland, has come under increasing pressure. At various times the authorities have summoned its editors or journalists to meetings with the Head of State, and have been told to stop publishing certain weekly columns by critics of government policies. The Nation is Swaziland’s last independent publication, analysing political and social developments in the country. Its editor Bheki Makhubu is currently serving a two year sentence for contempt of court after a grossly unfair trial.

3. Women are treated as second-class citizens.

Violence against women and girls is a very serious problem, placing them at risk of HIV infection in a country with one of the highest prevalence rates globally. The Sexual Offences and Domestic Violence Bill has been under discussion and consideration by parliament since 2006, with no sign of being implemented anytime soon. There are also no laws against early or forced marriages, and girls as young as 13 can be married under customary law.

4. The king controls most public land.

Over two thirds of the population live in rural areas under the control of Chiefs, who are appointed by the King. People can be evicted from their homes and livelihoods if they or their relatives are perceived to be critical of the royal family or their chief. Two-thirds of the population live below the poverty line and most of them live in rural areas. 

5. Civil and political rights are severely restricted. 

Human rights, trade union and political activists face persistent harassment and are at risk of beatings, arrests, unfair trials on political charges, ill-treatment and torture. The perpetrators of these abuses are almost never brought to justice. Swaziland authorities are actively using the 2008 Suppression of Terrorism Act and the 1938 Sedition and Subversive Activities Act to intimidate activists and restrict key human rights, such as freedom of expression and association. Fourteen people are currently charged under these laws in five separate trials.

For example, on 1 May 2014, the president of the opposition party, PUDEMO, Mario Masuku, and student activist, Maxwell Dlamini, were arrested at a Workers’ Day rally and charged with terrorism and sedition for chanting a slogan and singing a song. They have twice been denied bail during this time. Prison authorities continue to deny Mario Masuku access to the specialised medical care that he needs for his diabetic condition. 

Human rights lawyer, Thulani Maseko, and Nation editor, Bheki Makhubu, were sentenced to two years imprisonment in July 2014 for contempt of court after a grossly unfair trial merely for exercising peacefully their right to freedom of expression.

Amnesty is calling for the immediate repeal or amendment of repressive laws such as the Suppression of Terrorism Act and the Sedition and Subversive Activities Act and the release of all prisoners held solely for exercising their human rights peacefully.

Follow @AmnestySARO on Twitter for more on the human rights situation in Swaziland and how you can take action.