Eswatini | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

Eswatini

Eswatini

Not Free
16/100
Overview: 

Eswatini (known internationally as Swaziland until 2018) is a monarchy currently ruled by King Mswati III. The king exercises ultimate authority over all branches of the national government and effectively controls local governance through his influence over traditional chiefs. Political dissent and civic and labor activism are subject to harsh punishment under sedition and other laws. Additional human rights problems include impunity for security forces and discrimination against women and LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people. 

Key Developments: 

Key Developments in 2018:

  • In April, King Mswati III unilaterally changed the country’s name from Swaziland to Eswatini.
  • In July, Parliament passed the Sexual Offences and Domestic Violence Bill, which criminalizes marital rape, calls for the creation of specialized domestic violence courts, and establishes new mechanisms for reporting domestic violence, among other provisions.
  • General elections were held in September in a highly restrictive environment in which political parties were banned from competing, and almost all candidates were loyal to the king.
  • In October, Ambrose Dlamini was appointed prime minister, although he was not a member of Parliament at the time of his appointment, as required by the constitution.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

POLITICAL RIGHTS: 1 / 40

A. ELECTORAL PROCESS: 0 / 12

A1.      Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 0 / 4

The king, who remains the chief executive authority, is empowered to appoint and dismiss the prime minister and members of the cabinet. The prime minister is ostensibly the head of government, but has little power in practice. Ambrose Dlamini was appointed prime minister in October 2018, although he was not a member of Parliament at the time of his appointment, as required by the constitution.

Traditional chiefs govern their respective localities and typically report directly to the king. While some chiefs inherit their positions according to custom, others are appointed through royal interventions, as allowed by the constitution.

A2.      Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 0 / 4

The 69-member House of Assembly, the lower chamber of the bicameral Parliament, features 59 members elected by popular vote within the tinkhundla system, which allows local chiefs to vet candidates and influence outcomes in practice; the king appoints the other 10 members. The king appoints 20 members of the 30-seat Senate, the upper chamber, with the remainder selected by the House of Assembly. All members of Parliament serve five-year terms. After the parliamentary elections in September 2018, the king appointed six members of the royal family to the House of Assembly, and eight to the Senate. The elections, which were tightly controlled and featured a slate of candidates almost entirely loyal to the king, did not offer voters a genuine choice.

In August, a senior official at the Elections and Boundaries Commission (EBC) reported that members of the House of Assembly were accepting bribes in exchange for their votes in Senate elections. At year’s end, no apparent consequences had followed.

A3.      Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 0 / 4

The EBC is not considered impartial. It is financially and administratively dependent on the executive, and its members are appointed by the king on the advice of the Judicial Service Commission, whose members are also royal appointees. The EBC chairman, Gija Dlamini, is a half-brother of the king. At the end of the year, the EBC had not yet released detailed results from the September 2018 elections with a full accounting of votes received by each candidate.

Traditional chiefs also play an important role in elections, as candidates effectively need their approval to run for office.

B. POLITICAL PLURALISM AND PARTICIPATION: 1 / 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? 0 / 4

Election to public office is based on “individual merit,” according to the constitution. There is no legal avenue for parties to register and participate in elections, though some political associations exist without legal recognition. Over the years, political parties seeking legal recognition have suffered court defeats, including a Supreme Court ruling in September 2018 rejecting a challenge by the Swazi Democratic Party (SWADEPA) to the ban on political parties competing in elections.

B2.      Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 0 / 4

The king has tight control over the political system in law and in practice, leaving no room for the emergence of an organized opposition with the potential to enter government. The vast majority of candidates who contested the 2018 general elections were supporters of the king.

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? 0 / 4

Traditional chiefs, as the king’s representatives, wield enormous influence over their subjects. In addition to vetting prospective candidates for office, they have been accused of ordering residents to vote or not vote for certain candidates.

B4.      Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 1 / 4

There are virtually no members of minority groups in the government, as most officials have some connection to the royal family or its broader clan. Women are politically marginalized, and the authorities have not adhered to the constitutional gender quota requiring 30 percent of representatives in Parliament to be women. The passage of the Election of Women Members to the House of Assembly Bill ahead of the 2018 elections requires the House of Assembly to elect four women if the quota is not met. In 2018, only two women were directly elected to Parliament, and with the addition of the women appointed by the king and elected to the Senate by the House of Assembly, as well as the election of four more women resulting from the new legislation, Eswatini still falls short of the quota. Customary restrictions on widows in mourning—a period that can last from one to three years—effectively bar them from participating in public affairs. Members of the LGBT community and people with disabilities also remain politically marginalized.

C. FUNCTIONING OF GOVERNMENT: 0 / 12

C1.      Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 0 / 4

The king and his government determine policy and legislation; members of Parliament hold no real power and effectively act as a rubber stamp in approving the king’s legislative priorities. Parliament cannot initiate legislation and has little oversight or influence on budgetary matters. The king is also constitutionally empowered to veto any legislation. The absolute authority of the king was demonstrated by his decision to rename the country in April 2018 without any constitutional process or parliamentary approval.

C2.      Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 0 / 4

Corruption is a major problem, and implicated officials generally enjoy impunity. The Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) is perceived to be ineffective, with civil society groups accusing it of pursuing politically motivated cases and serving the interests of the prime minister. The commission, which reports to the Justice Ministry, lacks adequate financial and human resources, and must consult with the minister on hiring. In March 2018, the ACC’s budget was suspended by Parliament pending an investigation into corruption allegations within the body itself.

In November, a cabinet committee was established to develop a zero-tolerance policy on corruption in government, but it remains to be seen whether the committee can produce an effective anticorruption framework.

C3.      Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 0 / 4

Eswatini lacks access to information laws and there is no culture of proactive disclosure of government information. Public requests for information are largely ignored in practice, and the budgeting process lacks transparency. The authorities tightly restrict access to data on spending by the royal family and the security forces. Transparency was further reduced by Parliament’s passage of the Public Service Act in June 2018, which broadly prevents officials from providing public information to the media unless given express permission by the secretary of the cabinet.

CIVIL LIBERTIES: 15 / 60

D. FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND BELIEF: 5 / 16

D1.      Are there free and independent media? 1 / 4

A variety of laws, including the Sedition and Subversive Activities Act (SSAA) and defamation laws, can be used to restrict media coverage. The state broadcaster is tightly controlled by the government, and the Swazi Observer, a major newspaper, is effectively owned by the king. Journalists often face harassment, assault, and intimidation, and self-censorship is reportedly common. In January 2018, Zweli Dlamini, the editor of the independent business publication Swaziland Shopping, fled to South Africa after receiving death threats over a 2017 article alleging the king’s manipulation of the telecommunications industry to benefit a company he owns. Swaziland Shopping was also shut down on the king’s orders in the wake of the article’s publication.

D2.      Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 2 / 4

The constitution guarantees religious freedom and bars discrimination based on religion. Rules requiring registration of religious organizations are not strictly enforced. However, members of the Muslim minority allege discrimination by officials and Christian residents, and police reportedly monitor mosques. Non-Christian groups are also denied airtime on state broadcasters. Construction of religious buildings must be approved by the government or local chiefs. Christian education is compulsory in public schools, and in 2017, the government banned the teaching of other religions in the public school curriculum.

D3.      Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 1 / 4

Academic freedom is limited by restrictive laws such as the Suppression of Terrorism Act (STA) and SSAA. Student activists face potential violence, arrest, and suspension. In January 2018, police arrested 11 students protesting the administration at Swaziland Christian University and reportedly fired live ammunition into the demonstration.

D4.      Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 1 / 4

Constitutional rights to free expression are severely restricted in practice. Security agencies reportedly monitor personal communications, social media, and public gatherings, and criticism of the king or other elements of the regime can be punished under laws such as the SSAA, the STA, and the Public Order Act. Under revisions to the Public Order Act passed in 2017, any criticism of Swazi culture and traditions or defacement of national symbols—including the king’s image—can draw fines and up to two years in prison.

E. ASSOCIATIONAL AND ORGANIZATIONAL RIGHTS: 2 / 12

E1.      Is there freedom of assembly? 0 / 4

Freedom of assembly remained heavily restricted in 2018. Demonstrations are often violently dispersed by police, and protesters risk arrest and detention. In September, civil servants marching for pay increases were met by police who fired stun grenades into the crowd and assaulted demonstrators. Surveillance of protests is common, and the information collected is reportedly used to deny protesters access to government jobs and services.

E2.      Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 1 / 4

The operation of nongovernmental organizations has been inhibited by the broadly written sedition and terrorism laws as well as police monitoring and interference. Organizations that advocate for democracy remain banned.

E3.      Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 1 / 4

Eswatini has active labor unions, but workers’ rights are not upheld in practice. Although workers in most sectors, with the exception of essential services defined by the labor minister, can join unions, strikes and other labor activism routinely trigger crackdowns and arrests by the police. In June 2018, four protesters were seriously injured at a demonstration organized by the Trade Union Congress of Swaziland to protest corruption in the national pension fund and restrictions on collective bargaining, among other issues. Police fired rubber bullets and tear gas into the crowd. In September, a court banned a strike by public-sector workers, which was already underway, on the grounds that adequate notice was not provided.

F. RULE OF LAW: 4 / 16

F1.       Is there an independent judiciary? 1 / 4

Although the judiciary displays a degree of independence in some cases, the king holds ultimate authority over the appointment and removal of judges, acting on advice from a Judicial Service Commission made up of royal appointees.

F2.       Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 1 / 4

Safeguards against arbitrary arrest and detention, such as time limits on detention without charge, are not always respected in practice. Detainees are generally granted access to lawyers, though only those facing life imprisonment or capital punishment can obtain counsel at public expense. Lengthy pretrial detention is common. In January 2018, the Swazi Observer reported that one murder suspect had spent nearly 10 years in jail awaiting trial. Politically sensitive cases often feature high bail levels. Fair trial rights are not respected by traditional courts, which often adjudicate minor offenses and use customary law.

F3.       Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 1 / 4

Despite the June 2018 passage of the Police Service Act, which prescribes disciplinary measures for police officers who use illegitimate force, physical abuse of suspects and inmates by law enforcement officials is an ongoing problem, and investigations into such abuse lack independence and transparency. Some prisons also suffer from overcrowding and other harsh conditions.

F4.       Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 1 / 4

Women’s rights remain restricted in law and in practice. Both civil and customary law treat women as dependents of their fathers or husbands, and societal discrimination further impairs their access to education and employment. Residents who are not ethnic Swazis also face de facto discrimination. People with disabilities experience social stigma as well as discrimination in education and employment. At the end of 2018, Parliament had not yet passed the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill of 2015, which is intended to address many of the inequities experienced by disabled residents.

Discrimination against LGBT people is not prohibited by law and is widespread in practice. A criminal ban on same-sex sexual activity is not regularly enforced. In June 2018, the police allowed the first LGBT pride march in Eswatini’s history, but the chief police spokesperson said before the march that the LGBT community would not be tolerated.

G. PERSONAL AUTONOMY AND INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS: 4 / 16

G1.      Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 1 / 4

The constitution guarantees freedom of movement. However, minority ethnic groups and political activists have faced delays in obtaining passports and other citizenship documents. Traditional chiefs regulate movement and residence within their communities and generally deny access to groups advocating human rights or democracy. Individuals who violate customary rules can face eviction from their localities. Widows in mourning are barred from approaching chiefs or the king and excluded from certain public places and activities.

G2.      Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 1 / 4

The constitution provides legal protections for property rights, but women generally face limitations under customary rules that subordinate them to male relatives. Widows in particular face expropriation by the deceased husband’s family. Chiefs have broad authority to allocate and withdraw rights to communal land.

Individuals can face expropriation due to land claims by state-owned companies and powerful private interests, and constitutional guarantees of fair compensation are not upheld. In April 2018, Amnesty International reported that 61 people were forcibly evicted from their homes on land owned by a private agriculture company in the town of Malkerns; the residents were not given adequate notice of the eviction, nor were they provided with substantial compensation.

G3.      Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 1 / 4

Women’s social freedoms are restricted by both civil and customary law, which puts them at a disadvantage regarding marriage, divorce, and child custody. Customary law allows girls as young as 13 to marry. Sexual and domestic violence remains extremely common, and any penalties for perpetrators are often lenient. In July 2018, Parliament passed the Sexual Offences and Domestic Violence Act, which criminalizes marital rape, calls for the creation of specialized domestic violence courts, and establishes new mechanisms for reporting domestic violence, among other provisions.

G4.      Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 1 / 4

Residents have some access to formal employment and economic opportunity, but the majority of the population lives in poverty. Forced labor remains a problem, with some chiefs compelling Swazis, including children, to work in their communities or the king’s fields. Among other forms of child labor, girls are particularly vulnerable to domestic servitude and commercial sexual exploitation.