Remarks by Ambassador Lisa Peterson: Human Rights Day Commemoration

Great Seal of the United States

Program Director,
Chairperson of the Human Rights Commission,
Executive Director, CANGO
Her Excellency, the Ambassador of the European Union to Eswatini,
Representative from the UN Development Program,
Civil society organizations,
Members of the media,
Ladies and gentlemen –

Sanibonani.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document that for the first time detailed international acknowledgement of the “inherent dignity and of the equal or inalienable rights of all members of the human family as the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”.  Each year on December 10, we take a moment to reflect on our collective progress in upholding this carefully articulated set of rights and freedoms. If you follow Freedom House’s Freedom in the World Report, you will see the sobering news that the number of countries counted as “free” has declined over the past decade, while the number of “not free” countries has grown.  But if you think about just this gathering today, you will see signs of tremendous progress.  If this were 1948, I would not be addressing you as the U.S. Ambassador, first because Eswatini was not yet an independent country and second because the U.S. had no senior female career diplomats at that time.

The UDHR provided a new foundation that colonized people could use to advocate for their independence.  The UDHR similarly opened new avenues for advocacy on women’s rights and the rights of minority populations, with some of the most notable accomplishments arising from the U.S. civil rights movement to provide equal rights to African Americans.  These examples show how much progress has been made since 1948, but we also have ever present reminders that freedom is not an end state that we achieve, but a journey that requires continuous evaluation and vigilance to move toward what Abraham Lincoln called “a more perfect union” – something that builds upon and improves prior iterations, but not necessarily something that is itself perfect.

I was struck by the concept note for this event, which cites multiple negative reports from 2011.  I see distinct differences between the Swaziland I arrived in just three years ago and the Eswatini of today.  Many of what I count as successes have come in just the last year.  While I recognize that we cannot address problems until we have first identified them, I also know that dwelling only on the negative can lead to a kind of paralysis.  Eswatini needs to celebrate some of its achievements of the past year, both so that you can draw on the lessons from these victories, and so that you have the energy and motivation to move on to even greater triumphs.

One of the greatest accomplishments of this year was enactment of the Sexual Offenses and Domestic Violence Act. This is a victory not just for survivors of gender based violence, but also for all of civil society as it stands as an example of the ability of emaSwati to advocate for changes to policy and legislation.  Today is the perfect day to take a moment to appreciate this victory and all the effort that resulted in passage of the SODV Act – the lobbying, the public and private conversations, the public awareness campaigns, and the strategically timed marches and protests.  The even better news is that the law is already being implemented and perpetrators are being convicted.

I would also argue that there have been advances in the area of freedom of assembly.  WLSA’s Women’s March was one standout success. WLSA and its partners mobilized thousands of women and men, from every corner of Eswatini, in its call to support and elect more women in decision making structures. Participants wound their way through Manzini for hours, safeguarded by police officers at possible chokepoints.  Organizers followed the provisions of the new Public Order Act, notified the appropriate town authorities of the event and obtained both their desired routes and law enforcement support.

The country’s first-ever LGBT Pride parade was similarly a massive step forward for Eswatini, both for upholding the rights of minority populations and for applying the new Public Order Act.  As the march organizers encountered potential police resistance to the parade, they were able to draw on the experience of unions, who had guided the Mbabane authorities through the provisions of the Public Order Act for their April march.  The Pride parade ultimately proceeded, serving as an important awareness-raising measure.  And the Pride organizers were, in their turn, able to help another civil society organization overcome initial difficulties in organizing a march to raise awareness about child murders.  This kind of informal knowledge sharing is critical for all of your efforts.

As you look to consolidate some of these successes, I wanted to highlight some of the valuable lessons learned during the U.S. Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s as an example of strategic action. Activists aligned with Martin Luther King, Jr. utilized a range of tactics to address injustices stemming from racial segregation.[1] These included nonviolent direct action, grassroots organizing, and economic and legislative pressure. Public sit-ins at segregated lunch counters, where peaceful black patrons were subjected to racially charged vitriol and violence, were often broadcast across national television and in newspapers. The hateful displays successfully galvanized national support for desegregation laws, paving the way for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which ended segregation in public places.

However, on the issue of voting rights, civic organizers and their allies tried a different yet equally successful tack. They went door-to-door building relationships with voters. They instituted political education workshops that “introduced people to relevant laws and the duties of elected officials,” which increased people’s general understanding of citizenship and government. Such tactics also identified and incorporated potential new leaders in the Movement. The end result of years of canvassing and educating and lobbying was the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which removed legal barriers that had blocked African Americans from voting.

Coming back to Eswatini, while I celebrate your victories, I want to know what you plan to do to draw on the lessons from your successes and from advocacy campaigns elsewhere in the world.  For civil society, I think it is particularly important that you reflect carefully – but quickly – on how you can engage the new government.  You have a moment of opportunity, with new officials who seem determined to approach governance in a very different manner from that of their predecessors.  Are you going to approach this new cabinet and parliament with the same points you’ve been using for years, or are you going to consider what new avenues have been opened by the past year and consider a different approach?  For those of you here from government, can you take this moment to reach across to civil society and to political parties and work to chart a way forward on the fundamental question of political participation in Eswatini?  And for both government and civil society: Is anyone going to live into the section of the constitution that says, “The King and iNgwenyama and all the citizens of Swaziland have the right and duty at all times to uphold and defend this Constitution”?  If you seize this moment of opportunity and take on the challenge of trying a new approach, I believe you will start seeing more of the fundamental structural changes that need to happen for Eswatini to achieve its full potential.

Siyabonga.

[1] Civil Rights Movement Tactics – https://www.civilrightsteaching.org/voting-rights/documents-based-lesson/civil-rights-movement-tactics/