The New Humanitarian Annual Report 2021

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Human rights and the draft constitution

Swaziland's draft constitution advances some human rights in the kingdom.

"We are happy that the constitution contains a Bill of Rights. This is the cornerstone of all modern constitutions, and it conforms to the UN Declaration on Human Rights, to which Swaziland subscribes," said Dr Joshua Mzizi, a theologian at the University of Swaziland who heads the Human Rights Association of Swaziland (HUMARAS).

His organisation worked with the Constitutional Drafting Committee on the draft constitution's Chapter IV, which is described in the document's summary as a Bill of Rights.

Rights and freedoms in Swaziland as defined in the constitution consist of: a) respect for life, liberty, security of person and equality before the law, and equal protection of the law; b) freedom of conscience and expression, and peaceful assembly and association; c) protection of the privacy of the home and other property of the individual; and d) protection from deprivation of property without compensation, except as provided by law.

"The legislature, executive and judiciary and all organs and agencies of government are enjoined to respect these rights and freedoms," says the draft constitution.

Swaziland has been criticised by international human rights groups for retaining the death penalty. Capital punishment remains in the draft constitution, but its mandatory use is forbidden. Abortion is still illegal, but a loophole provides for the termination of foetal life on medical or therapeutic grounds.

Forced labour is prohibited, which has strong cultural implications in Swaziland. For years, the Swaziland Federation of Labour has objected to the practice of "kuhlehla", or tribute labour, where chiefs or the king compel Swazis to do agricultural or other work. The new constitutional clause makes the cultural practice voluntary.

According to Swazi custom, a man's estate goes to his family upon his death. But greedy families have left widows and surviving children penniless. The draft constitution orders that a "reasonable provision" of the deceased's estate goes to the surviving spouse, undercutting the abused traditional system.

Amnesty International, in its annual reports on human rights violators worldwide, regularly derides the Royal Swaziland Police Force for torturing criminal suspects to induce confessions. The draft constitution states: "A person shall not be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment."

The constitution declares Christianity the official religion of Swaziland. The Bill of Rights guarantees the unrestricted practice of other religious beliefs.

Freedom of expression generally, and press freedom explicitly, is guaranteed. This provision should come as a relief to Swaziland's beleaguered journalist community, which has been harassed and subject to arrest and detention for offending the royal family. The rights of children and the disabled are mentioned, and workers' rights are covered.

Critics of a draft constitution that places the Swazi king in the position of highest national authority, and above the constitution itself, want a constitutional monarch to ensure that the Bill of Rights cannot be withdrawn. Five pages of the chapter devoted to the Bill of Rights dwell on a state of emergency, and how and when the king can declare it, and which rights are suspended.

"It should be noted that these rights and freedoms are not absolute," states the draft constitution's summary. HUMARAS questions how "certain limitations" can be imposed on rights that should be fundamental and absolute.

SWAZILAND: Special report on the draft constitution

SWAZILAND: Good news for women

SWAZILAND: Interview with head of Constitutional Drafting Committee


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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