The inauguration of Advocate Lawrence Mushwana last week as the new chairperson of the International Coordinating Committee of National Institutions for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights (ICC) came at a time when South Africa’s human rights record is at its lowest.
Mushwana, who is the chair of South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), was confirmed in Geneva Switzerland during the ICC’s recent seating, as the first African to head this international human rights body. What most people don’t understand is that Mushwana’s election is, by extension, the election of South Africa and, indeed, Africa to lead the fight for human rights across the world.
The question we should ask ourselves: is South Africa and Africa ready to lead by example?
The answer is yes. But the events of the past few months make the “yes” difficult to utter.
The ascension of Mushwana to the ICC’s highest office came at the time when the abuse against women, children and the elderly is on a high, when social rights such as the right to water and sanitation, right to healthcare service and right to food are but just a pipedream to many. Our elderly seem to be not recognised as deserving of protection by government as abuses against them are meted out with no word from the authorities.
It is also at a time when as a country we are experiencing unprecedented recurrence of incidences of torture, ill-treatment and police brutality of the magnitude that we have never experienced since we became a democracy.
The tragic killing of 34 miners in Marikana by the police sent shock waves through the entire country and the global world.
This sad and tragic incident followed closely on the killing of Andries Tatane by the police during a service delivery protest march by the Ficksburg community.
As if this was not enough, Mido Macia, a taxi driver and a Mozambican citizen died tragically in police holding cells after he was tied and dragged behind a police vehicle in Daveyton in full view of members of the public.
Many people outside South Africa looked up to us to shine the light on the rest of the continent in terms of respecting the rule of law. Many expected us to have learnt a hard lesson from apartheid when police tortured political prisoners with impunity, and shot dead unarmed protesters as documented in incidents like the Sharpeville massacre among others.
But it would seem we didn’t learn. Many would agree that the impression following on these recent killings tarnished the image of South Africa in such a manner that it will take a very long time and indeed a lot of efforts to restore the confidence and battered image.
It came as no surprise to most rights pundits when the Human Rights Watch (HRW) report of 2013 downgraded the country as one of the worst performers in terms of promoting human rights.
What do you make of a country where a protester gets shot point blank, allegedly by police, in full view of the whole world, and all the police officials implicated are acquitted?
HRW justified its decision to downgrade South Africa by explaining that “despite South Africa’s strong constitutional protections for human rights and its relative success at providing basic services, the government is struggling to meet demands for economic and social rights … the killing of 34 miners at the Lonmin Platinum Mine in Marikana … shocked South Africans and highlighted increasing concerns over police brutality and underlying grievances over the government’s failure to fulfil basic economic and social rights. Bills (like the Protection of State Information Bill) have been proposed that, if enacted, would negatively affect media freedom and access to justice”.
But on his shoulders Mushwana is not only carrying South Africa’s burden, he is also responsible for the continent, not only by virtue of him being the head of the ICC, but also as the chairperson of Network of African National Human Rights Institutions — a position he has held since 2011. NANHRI is a regional representative body of national human rights institutions in Africa. In his capacity as NANHRI chairperson Mushwana, has represented the positions of African human rights institutions at international and regional forums including at the United Nations and the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR).
Across our borders, just days ago, the ACHPR found the Zimbabwean government responsible for the torture and ill-treatment of Gabriel Shumba, a well-known human rights advocate and lawyer from Zimbabwe. In Swaziland a well-known journalist and writer, Bheki Makhubu, the editor of the Nation magazine, was recently convicted on charges of “scandalising the court”, and sentenced to two years in jail or obliged to pay a R200 000 fine, a sentence which was slammed by local and international rights activists, with many calling on regional governments and the AU in particular to remind the Swazi authorities of the importance of a free press and open, democratic environment.
In Zambia two young men are languishing in jail as I write this after being arrested on charges of having sex “against the order of nature”. Phil Mubiana and James Mwansa, both 21, from central Zambian village of Ndeke were arrested for the second time for alleged same sex conduct, which is still considered a serious crime under Zambia’s penal code.
In Mali, two ethnic Tuareg men who had been arrested on February 15, 2013, and tortured by Malian soldiers in the town of Léré, Timbuktu region, died in detention at the Central Prison in Bamako. “These incidences and many that go unreported every day paint a grim picture of the daunting challenge and task that lies ahead of us” Mushwana told a seminar on the prevention of torture recently in Johannesburg.
And press freedom in most African countries is outlawed, while other civil rights far from being realised.
His appointment marks a symbolic point in Africa’s legacy of human rights. However, this will surely attract attention to South Africa and the region as a whole. There will be increased attention given to the continent and South Africa’s human rights track record and its compliance with international human rights obligations. South Africa in particular, which is seen by its peers in Africa as a “big brother”, will be expected to take the lead in criminalising torture, for example.
But it shouldn’t be seen only in a bad light. This position will create opportunities for the country to showcase its human rights successes, which are aplenty, and to share and seek solutions to current challenges.
More importantly, as the SAHRC said, it is an opportunity to leverage key African regional human rights concerns onto the international human rights agenda.
This is a chance for SA and Africa to take their rightful place on the international stage and lead the way in the fight to protect and promote human rights.
But surely Mushwana cannot do this alone. He will need the support of the country and the region. And that support is not in monetary terms, but political will.
And the deeds of our governments and people must ensure that as citizens of this continent, we jointly and individually, do our bit to ensure that we fight to promote and protect human rights. It’s our right!