Doing our bit in Swaziland from Brussels
The Swazi people experience some of the most horrid living conditions on the planet. Under King Mswati II’s absolute rule, very low living standards have become even lower, very high AIDS/HIV prevalence has become even higher. Poverty is widespread, and the rule of law a distant ideal. We simply cannot ignore what is happening in Swaziland, and we can do our bit to help from Brussels. The EU actually has important economic levers at its disposal, to support meaningful change on the ground. MEPs recently advocated for these levers to be pulled.
The repression does not stop courageous individuals from standing up, and progressive movements from being formed. In 2012 a unified trade union confederation, TUCOSWA, was established with the support of the British TUC. Union lawyers such as Thulani Maseko, and independent journalists such as Bheki Makhubu, have spoken out against human rights abuses and the judicial system.
The Swazi regime is clamping down on this vanguard of progress. After three years of illegal existence TUCOSWA is still closely monitored by the police, which attends every union meeting, although it has now finally been allowed to register, under pressure from the ILO. Maseko and Makhubu have both been imprisoned on the back of bogus charges.
Most recently, Thulani Maseko was moved to solitary confinement, in reprisal against the publication of a prison letter in which he denounced his treatment. Only last year, the Swazi Prime Minister was calling for two trade union leaders that had attended the African Summit in Washington to be strangled upon their return to Swaziland.
The EU grants very generous trade preferences to Swaziland, which are conditioned to the respect of human and labour rights conventions. The threat of removing such preferences can act as a powerful incentive for change. Ultimately, the decision to suspend trade preferences lies with the European Commission.
The EU also recently concluded negotiations for an Economic Partnership Agreement with a group of Southern African countries, including Swaziland. The Agreement will only be enacted once it is ratified by the European Parliament.
On Thursday 22 May the European Parliament adopted a strong resolution in which, for the first time, it expressed its willingness to use these economics levers to improve the situation in Swaziland.
While calling for the immediate and unconditional release of Thulani Maseko and Bheki Makhubu, we clearly stated that their imprisonment and anti-union practices were not compatible with the EU’s trade preference system. The European Parliament called on the Commission to open an investigation, which could lead to the suspension of the trade preference. This is a small step to be sure, but a very significant one nonetheless.
The adopted resolution also says for the first time that the ratification of the agreement with the Southern African region will not be automatic: our support will depend on whether Swaziland respects its commitments to comply with international conventions, such as the ILO standards that protect union rights.
Applying diplomatic pressure can work, and it certainly doesn’t hurt if we use economic arguments to. Sadly the EU has been too reluctant to use the tools available to it, in the fear that it would create the right kind of incentives. The European Parliament is now leading the way for another approach.