Op-Ed by Ambassador Lisa J Peterson: Thoughts from a “Sleepy Donor”

Op-Ed by Ambassador Lisa J Peterson

Thoughts from a “Sleepy Donor”

An article in one of the national dailies recently declared:  “Corruption Rife in Eswatini – USA.”  This article, which bore a striking resemblance to a piece on AllAfrica.com, presented the U.S. Department of State’s annual Human Rights Report as if it was predominantly focused on corruption.  A more complete review of the report, available at https://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/hrrpt/, would have revealed that corruption comprises only one page out of a 24 page report.  Should anyone wish to read the actual report, you will gain a better understanding of our assessment of human rights in the Kingdom for 2018, on issues ranging from politically motivated killings to freedom of expression to elections and political participation.  The report is a mix of positives and negatives.  If you wish to get a sense of Eswatini’s trajectory over the years, you can look at past reports on the website as well.  Some in the country will disagree with our assessment, but the succession of reports shows that many conditions have improved since 2015.

I am frustrated that neither the local publication nor the AllAfrica source chose to present the full picture presented by the Human Rights Report.  However, the response of the government spokesman far outweighs the media’s very narrow lens on this issue.  The spokesman characterized the information in our report as “sourced from desperate power hungry political dwarfs” who are “trying to please sleepy donors.”  The spokesman apparently could not be bothered to inform himself on the matter to gain a full and nuanced understanding before responding on behalf of the government.

The Department of State submits the annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices to Congress as part of our compliance with the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961.  The reports cover internationally recognized civil and political rights, including those set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  Reports are prepared on countries that receive foreign assistance from the U.S. and countries which are members of the United Nations.  Legislation requires that U.S. foreign and trade policy take into account countries’ human and workers’ rights performance.

The government, and apparently many people at the government’s launch of its strategic roadmap, seem to think that foreign development partners should simply hand over money and shut up.  The problem with this expectation is that it ignores the obligation of U.S. civil servants to ensure proper stewardship of taxpayer funds.  We cannot have our taxpayers continue to support the health care of emaSwati if we are not continuously vigilant with reporting about the economic and governance foundations that secure these investments.  We cannot simply keep quiet and hope for the best.

Part of the irony in the spokesman’s criticism is that the topic he derides is one that his boss acknowledges is a problem:  corruption.  At the launch of the government’s strategic roadmap, the Prime Minister underscored that corruption is a problem in the country and must be addressed as a matter of economic imperative.  Among the Prime Minister’s first actions in office was the announcement of several anti-corruption and cost cutting measures.  Surely, the spokesman is not suggesting that the Prime Minister is “sleepy”?

Similarly, Eswatini’s constitution repeatedly highlights corruption as a threat to be eliminated and imposes affirmative duties on all emaSwati to expose and eradicate it:  “All lawful measures shall be taken to expose, combat and eradicate corruption and abuse or misuse of power by those holding political and other public offices.”  The constitution, which secured the assent of the King and represents the will of emaSwati, surely would not be dismissed by the spokesman as “sleepy”?

The government also misses a massive point when it derides the marches that have taken place in Manzini in recent weeks.  If you look back at prior year Human Rights Reports, you will see that prior restrictions on public gatherings were part of what drew international attention to Eswatini’s failure to honor the constitution’s fundamental freedoms of assembly, association, and expression.  Having explicitly political marches take place, and having the organizers be able to publicly highlight their success, shows that Eswatini is better honoring the rights enshrined in its constitution.   Such improvement should be celebrated.

I noted earlier that the Human Rights Report is a mix of positives and negatives.  Among the positives are no reports of arbitrary or unlawful killings by the government and improvements in prison conditions.  Among the negatives is the lack of an explicit operating environment in which political parties may contest elections.  This was a point highlighted by the African Union observer mission, which specifically encouraged “the Government of Eswatini to consider reviewing the 1973 decree and allow for the formation, registration and participation of political parties in elections in accordance with the provisions of the 2005 Constitution, and in compliance with the country’s international commitment.”  Are your African brethren also sleepyheads, like me?

While government is angry that we would dare say anything negative about them, PUDEMO has issued an angry tweet https://twitter.com/PUDEMO/status/1128126382146576385 suggesting that we are not negative enough about government because we are still providing foreign assistance to the country, overwhelmingly in the fight against HIV/AIDS.  Perhaps PUDEMO’s political philosophy considers it acceptable to allow the country to return to an era in which Saturdays were filled with AIDS-related funerals.  That is not a philosophy we can share.  When the day comes that PUDEMO is allowed to fully participate in political processes, I suspect such a philosophy may be a difficult point to translate into favorable responses at the ballot box.

Another writer has already commented on the spokesman’s damaging approach.  I need to go one step further than this earlier commentary and point out that the spokesman’s responses are more than a turn-off.  His job is to be the mouthpiece of the government.  His statements are expressions of policy.  When he calls foreign governments “imbeciles” or “sleepy,” he is doing so not in his own name, but in the name of his government.  His attacks target not only outsiders like me, but the fundamental freedoms that are at the heart of Eswatini’s constitution.  I would have expected this from the previous administration, but I hope for better things moving forward.