Freedom in the World
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Freedom in the World Scores
Lesotho is a constitutional monarchy. In recent years, the army’s involvement in the country’s already fragile politics has resulted in political instability and a security crisis. Corruption remains a challenge. Customary practice and law restricts women’s rights in areas such as property, inheritance, and marriage and divorce.
Key Developments in 2017:
- A parliamentary no-confidence vote in March triggered the third round of legislative elections in five years. The polls took place peacefully and were deemed well administered and credible by international election observers, who offered particular praise for the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC).
- Thomas Thabane’s All Basotho Convention (ABC) won a plurality of seats in the snap polls, and formed a coalition government.
- In September, Army Chief Khoantle Motsomotso was assassinated by rivals. The Southern African Development Community (SADC) subsequently deployed a 258-person regional force to Lesotho, tasked with helping reestablish security.
- Police were criticised for a violent response to student protests held in April on a campus of the National University of Lesotho.
POLITICAL RIGHTS: 27 / 40
A. ELECTORAL PROCESS: 10 / 12
A1. Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 3 / 4
Lesotho is a constitutional monarchy. King Letsie III serves as the ceremonial head of state. The prime minister is head of government; the head of the majority party or coalition automatically becomes prime minister following elections, making the prime minister’s legitimacy largely dependent on the conduct of the polls. Thomas Thabane became prime minister after his ABC party won snap elections in 2017. Thabane, a fixture in the country’s politics, had previously served as prime minister from 2012–14, but spent two years in exile in South Africa amid instability that followed a failed 2014 coup.
A2. Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 4 / 4
The lower house of Parliament, the National Assembly, has 120 seats; 80 are filled through first-past-the-post constituency votes, and the remaining 40 through proportional representation. Members serve five-year terms. The Senate—the upper house of Parliament—consists of 22 principal chiefs who wield considerable authority in rural areas and whose membership is hereditary, along with 11 other members appointed by the king and acting on the advice of the Council of State.
In March 2017, the coalition government of Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili—head of the Democratic Congress (DC)—lost a no-confidence vote. The development triggered the third round of legislative elections held since 2012. Election observers from the SADC, African Union (AU), and the Commonwealth Observer Group reported that the elections took place peacefully and were generally well administered and competitive. However, some isolated instances of political violence were noted, as was a heavy security presence at many polling places, which electoral officials said intimidated some voters. Thabane’s ABC won a plurality of seats formed a coalition government, with Thabane serving again as prime minister.
A3. Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 3 / 4
Although the IEC faces capacity constraints, and the credibility of the voters’ roll has been questioned in the past, it has been commended for its independence and its efforts to uphold electoral laws and oversee credible elections. In 2017, international election observer missions broadly commended the IEC’s administration of the snap polls, but noted deficiencies they linked to the body’s lack of capacity, including late disbursement of campaign funds to political parties.
B. POLITICAL PLURALISM AND PARTICIPATION: 11 / 16
B1. Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings? 3 / 4
Political parties may form freely and are allotted funding by the IEC, and 27 parties contested the 2017 elections. However, politics have been unstable since a failed 2014 coup. The country has seen politically motivated assassinations and assassination attempts, and political leaders operate within the country at some risk to their personal safety. Lipolelo Thabane, Prime Minister Thabane’s estranged wife, was shot and killed two days before his June 2017 inauguration, though the motive was unclear. No arrests had been made at year’s end.
B2. Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 3 / 4
Opposition parties have a realistic chance of gaining power through elections, and power has rotated frequently between DC- and ABC-led coalitions. However, political instability and associated violence and intimidation has at times prompted opposition leaders to flee the country.
B3. Are the people’s political choices free from domination by the military, foreign powers, religious hierarchies, economic oligarchies, or any other powerful group that is not democratically accountable? 2 / 4
Recent political instability is largely related to politics becoming entangled in disputes among factions of the Lesotho Defence Force (LDF). Although the heavy military presence at voting stations during the 2017 elections was questioned, no incidences of interference with voters were reported. Traditional chiefs wield some political influence over their rural subjects.
B4. Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 3 / 4
The constitution guarantees political rights for all. However, societal norms discourage women from running for office, and women remain underrepresented in Parliament; following the 2017 elections, 23 percent of seats are held by women, down from 25 percent previously. The inaccessibility of some polling stations to persons living with disabilities was raised as a concern during the year’s elections. LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) individuals generally face societal discrimination, and this discourages them from advocating for their rights in the political sphere.
C. FUNCTIONING OF GOVERNMENT: 6 / 12
C1. Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 2 / 4
While elections are held without delays and representatives are duly seated, persistent political instability disrupts normal government operations.
C2. Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 2 / 4
Official corruption and impunity for it are perceived as a significant problem in Lesotho. The main anticorruption agency, the Directorate on Corruption and Economic Offences (DCEO), lacks full prosecutorial powers, and faces capacity and funding challenges. However, its budget was increased by 40 percent in 2017, and despite its challenges, DCEO officers do work to pursue the body’s mandate. In 2017, it pursued several controversial cases that involved former cabinet ministers. For example, in August, it interrogated former ministers implicated in a vehicle contract controversially awarded to South African company Bidvest.
C3. Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 2 / 4
Lesotho has no access to information law, and responses to information requests are not guaranteed. While the Finance Ministry, Bureau of Statistics, and other government bodies publish some data online, not all government departments have an online presence; notably, the Energy and Defence Ministries do not have websites. The management of public finances is clouded in secrecy. Government procurement decisions and tenders generally cannot be accessed online.
CIVIL LIBERTIES: 37 / 60
D. FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND BELIEF: 12 / 16
D1. Are there free and independent media? 2 / 4
Freedom of the press is only indirectly protected under constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression. Journalists are subject to threats and intimidation from both authorities and private citizens. Both state and private media stand accused of being openly biased, and 2017 election monitoring missions noted media bias. Both the current and previous administration shut down radio stations in 2017. In February, Pakalitha Mosisili’s government shut down two local radio stations for allegedly broadcasting defamatory content against himself and his deputy prime minister. In September, Mo-Afrika FM was temporarily prevented from broadcasting by the ABC-led government, and its owner was arrested and charged with defamation over airing content perceived as antigovernment.
In October, a South African Broadcasting Corporation correspondent fled Lesotho after receiving death threats. Five soldiers went on trial in December for the 2016 attempted murder of a Lesotho Times journalist.
D2. Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 4 / 4
The Constitution provides legal protections for freedom of religion and prohibits religious discrimination, and religious freedom is generally upheld in practice.
D3. Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 3 / 4
Academic freedom is generally respected in practice. However, police were criticised for a violent response to student protests on a campus of the National University of Lesotho that took place in April. The students were protesting then prime minister Mosisili’s failure to intervene in a dispute involving nondisbursement of scholarship funds, and the events raised questions about the ability of students to organize antigovernment protests on university grounds. Separately, in May, the DC leaders accused the university of having sought the ouster of the DC-led coalition government, and declined to participate in a debate the university had planned.
D4. Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 3 / 4
The constitution provides legal protections for freedom of expression. However political violence in recent years has discouraged some open political debate. Additionally, in February 2017, authorities temporarily detained and questioned the operators of a Facebook page in an attempt to learn the identity of a user who had published sensitive government information using a pseudonym.
E. ASSOCIATIONAL AND ORGANIZATIONAL RIGHTS: 7 / 12
E1. Is there freedom of assembly? 2 / 4
Protests and demonstrations are permitted, but organizers must seek a permit seven days in advance. Demonstrations take place each year, but are sometimes broken up violently by police, as was the case with the 2017 student demonstrations at the National University of Lesotho.
E2. Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 3 / 4
NGOs generally operate without restrictions. However, the Mosisili government was notably reluctant to cooperate with such NGOs and accused them of bias, according to the US State Department.
E3. Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 2 / 4
While labor and union rights are constitutionally guaranteed, the union movement is weak and highly fragmented, and these challenges have undermined unions’ ability to advance the rights of workers. The government also stands accused of undermining bodies like the National Advisory Committee on Labour (NACOLA), Wages Advisory Board, and Industrial Relations Council. Many employees in the textile sector—Lesotho’s largest formal employer—face obstacles when attempting to join unions.
F. RULE OF LAW: 9 / 16
F1. Is there an independent judiciary? 3 / 4
The constitution of Lesotho protects judicial independence and the judiciary is generally independent in practice. However, it is underresourced and some appointments have been criticized.” The August 2017 reappointment of Justice Mosito as head of the Court of Appeal raised questions among many observers, as he had resigned eight months earlier to avoid impeachment over allegations of tax evasion. Separately, the government in 2017 asked the country’s chief justice to either resign or face impeachment over a controversial rental transaction, she has also been accused of political bias.
F2. Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 2 / 4
Courts uphold fair trial rights in most judiciary proceedings. However, the large backlog of cases often leads to trial delays and lengthy pretrial detention. Officials within the criminal justice system have faced intimidation. In October 2017, the 35-year-old practice of well-known human rights lawyer Zwelakhe Mda was allegedly burned down. At the time, he was involved in a high-profile case challenging the appointment of Mosito, the new head of the Court of Appeal.
F3. Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 2 / 4
Violence related to factional disputes in the army continued to play out in 2017. In September, Army Chief Khoantle Motsomotso was assassinated by rivals. The SADC subsequently deployed a 258-person regional force to Lesotho, tasked with helping reestablish security. Separately, soldiers who fled to South Africa in 2014–15 amid mutiny charges began arriving back in Lesotho in October 2017, after being asked to return.
Although the constitution provides legal protections against torture, allegations of torture have been levelled against the police, LDF, and prison authorities. In April 2017, Opposition Alliance of Democrats (AD) Youth League President Thuso Litjobo and his bodyguard were allegedly tortured by the police following their arrest on a murder charge. The LDF has been accused of carrying out extrajudicial killings of suspected gang members.
In April, a student from the National University of Lesotho was shot in the back of the head by a police officer and died from the injury while at a club near the campus.
Prison conditions are inadequate and detainees are subject to physical abuse.
F4. Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 2 / 4
Rights are restricted for some groups. Same-sex sexual relations between men is illegal, though this law is not enforced. LGBT individuals face societal discrimination, and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity is not prohibited by law. Schools often lack facilities for students with disabilities.
G. PERSONAL AUTONOMY AND INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS: 9 / 16
G1. Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 3 / 4
The constitution protects freedom of movement, and this is generally upheld. In 2017, media reported that a high incidence of rape on a path near the Ha Lebona and Ha Koeshe villages has prompted some women to reduce travel in the area.
G2. Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 2 / 4
The Constitution protects property rights, though in practice the related laws are inconsistently upheld. Customary practice and law still restricts women’s rights in areas such as property, and inheritance. Expropriation is provided for in the Constitution but is unlikely, and subject to fair compensation. Government instability and the country’s volatile politics hampers normal business activity.
G3. Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 2 / 4
Not all individuals enjoy full social freedom. Traditional practices and harmful patriarchal attitudes negatively affect women. Violence against women is high, and there is still no domestic violence law, despite government promises to enact one. Forced and child marriages remain an ongoing problem. Customary practices and law restrict women’s rights in and marriage and divorce.
G4. Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 2 / 4
Human trafficking remains an ongoing challenge. The State Department’s 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report found Lesotho’s legal framework for prosecuting human trafficking to be weak and inconsistent with international law. It also noted a lack of inspections in informal work settings where forced labor is rife. However, government efforts to fight trafficking including the signing of a memorandum of understanding to help reestablish the only NGO that had provide shelter for victims.