King Mswati III is misleading his subjects and the world at large when he says he does not know why the United States is withdrawing a preferential trading status from his kingdom.
The United States decided that Swaziland could no longer receive trading benefits under the African Growth Opportunity Act (AGOA). The decision was made in June 2014 after Swaziland failed to meet the United States’ requirements on human rights issues.
King Mswati rules Swaziland as sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarch and political parties are banned from contesting elections with many outlawed under anti-terrorism legislation. The King handpicks the Prime Minister, government ministers and the judiciary.
King Mswati returned from the United States Africa summit in Washington this week and told media in Swaziland that he did not know why the United States withdrew the preferential trading status. The Swazi Observer, a newspaper in effect owned by the King, reported him saying the United States did not make it clear why Swaziland lost its eligibility.
However, the reasoning was widely reported at the time, including by newspapers in Swaziland. The US withdrew Swaziland’s AGOA privileges after the kingdom ignored an ultimatum to implement the full passage of amendments to the Industrial Relations Act; full passage of amendments to the Suppression of Terrorism Act (STA); full passage of amendments to the Public Order Act; full passage of amendments to sections 40 and 97 of the Industrial Relations Act relating to civil and criminal liability to union leaders during protest actions; and establishing a code of conduct for the police during public protests.
The US Trade Representative Michael Froman, said, ‘The withdrawal of AGOA benefits is not a decision that is taken lightly.
‘We have made our concerns very clear to Swaziland over the last several years and we engaged extensively on concrete steps that Swaziland could take to address the concerns.’
Since the announcement of the withdrawal, which starts on 1 January 2015, the United States has continued to criticise Swaziland’s poor human rights issues.
Last week, the United States criticised Swazi Prime Minister Barnabas Dlamini after he called for two workers’ leaders to be ‘strangled’ after they criticised his government’s human rights record. It called the comment ‘threatening’.
In a statement the United States Department of State said, ‘Such remarks have a chilling effect on labor and civil rights in the Kingdom of Swaziland.’
It added, ‘The United States continues to support and defend fundamental freedoms, including freedom of association, and the human rights defenders who fight for these values each day. We call upon the Government to renounce the Prime Minister’s remarks and to ensure respect for the constitutionally enshrined rights of all citizens.’
Last month (July 2014) the US State Department criticised the jailing for two years of magazine editor Bheki Makhubu and human rights lawyer and writer Thulani Maseko after they wrote articles critical of the Swazi judiciary.
In a statement the State Department said, ‘Their convictions for contempt of court for publishing an article critical of the High Court of Swaziland and their ongoing prolonged detention appear to undermine respect for Swaziland’s human rights obligations, particularly the right to freedom of expression, which is enshrined in Swaziland’s own constitution and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The United States strongly supports the universal fundamental freedom of expression and is deeply concerned by the actions of the Swazi Government.’
The US regularly draws attention to human rights failings in Swaziland. In a public statement in April 2013, the US Embassy in Swaziland said it had ‘deep concern’ about the way police engaged in ‘acts of intimidation and fear’ against people seeking their political rights.
The statement came after armed police, acting without a court order, barricaded a restaurant in Manzini to stop people attending a public meeting to discuss the national election in Swaziland.
The US embassy said it had deep concern about the manner in which representatives of political organisations and lawyers for human rights were treated by police.
The police blockade of the restaurant took place on 12 April 2013 and was intended to mark the 40th anniversary of the Royal Decree in 1973 by King Sobhuza II that tore up the constitution and allowed the king to introduce any law he wished and to change existing ones.
The decree has never been rescinded and his son, Mswati III today rules Swaziland as an absolute monarch.
The US Embassy said it was, ‘[C]oncerned that a group of people were prevented from entering a restaurant, where they had planned to hold their meeting and were forcibly removed from the premises by police’.
The statement added that the 2005 Swaziland Constitution guaranteed freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association.
It further said Swazi security forces had a duty to protect the rights of citizens to, ‘communicate ideas and information without interference’.
This was not the first time the US Embassy in Swaziland has criticised the Swaziland ruling regime. A year earlier in April 2012 it said, ‘We urge the Swazi government to take the necessary steps to ensure the promotion and protection of the fundamental rights and freedoms of all Swazi citizens as outlined in the Swazi constitution, including freedom of conscience, of expression, of peaceful assembly and association, and of movement.’
The statement went on, ‘The United States government is deeply concerned about increasing infringements on freedom of assembly, as evidenced by the recent actions taken by Swazi security forces to prevent peaceful citizens from gathering for a prayer meeting on Saturday, April 14 in Manzini as well as reports of those same forces preventing people from gathering in groups of more than two people in Manzini and Mbabane on April 11 and 12.’
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