If Malawi Human Rights Commission is not barking up wrong tree, its mandate has of late been changed

The Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC) is supposedly, an independent institution established under Chapter XI of the Constitution of the Republic of Malawi, mandated to promote and protect human rights in the broadest sense possible, and to investigate violations of human rights on its own volition or upon complaints received from any person, class of persons or body.

The MHRC has the mandate to investigate cases where it is alleged that a person has suffered injustice and it does not appear that there is any remedy reasonably available by way of proceedings in a court or by way of appeal from a court or where there is no other practical remedy.

President Joyce Banda, after ascending to the high office of the Republic of Malawi, cognisant of the importance and relevance of the MHRC, quickly appointed nine people as commissioners of the MHRC, three months after contracts of the previous commissioners expired.

The new serving commissioners are Dalitso Kubalasa – Executive Director of the Malawi Economic Justice Network; Rodgers Newa – Executive Director of CEYCA; Steven Mkoka – a programmemanager at the National Initiative for Civic Education; and Benedicto Kondowe – Executive Director of Civil Society Education Coalition; Ms Sophie Kalinde, a former diplomat and commissioner; Marshal Chilanga; a private practice lawyer and former commissioner; Rev Dr Zachaeus Kawalala, overseer of Word Alive Ministries with former commissioner of the Ombudsman, Justice Tujilane Chizumila and the Law Commissioner Gertrude Hiwa, as ex-officio members.

Members of the Human Rights Commission pose for a photo with President Joyce Banda after swearing in

These Commissioners were sworn in at the New State House in Lilongwe on Wednesday, August 8, 2012. And as per the rules and regulations of the commission, they elected Ms Sophie Kalinde as the chairperson at their first meeting; forming – on paper – a formidable team to pick up the baton from where the previous celebrated team of commissioners had left it.

Since that time, nothing except the popular song of Bingu /DPP bashing and vague references to July 20 killers facing justice or something to that effect, was heard from the commission, until this last week.

Now bear with me; as I will have to digress a while to quickly apprise you developments and the state of affairs in Malawi. Once done, I will revert to what seems to have attracted the MHRC’s wrath and prove why, with due respect, Commissioner Sophie Kalinde is barking up the wrong tree.

According to the National Statistical Office (NSO) inflation has now hit a 7-yearhigh . The NSO, in its September 2012 Stats Flash released and available on this link; states that core inflation has gone up by 28.8 percent compared to 12.5 percent  during the same period last year.

The last time Malawi inflation was seen above 28.8 percent was in 2005 following a dry spell that hit the country, which resulted in crop failure. According to the NSO, the urban inflation rate moved up from 28.2 percent to 31.1 percent while the rural inflation soared from 23.3 percent in August to 26.6 percent.

Food inflation has gone up by 27.7 percent compared to 2.7 percent during the same period last year,” – the NSO, verbatim.

These depressing statistics are far beyond the worst projected nightmare of the Ministry of Finance. The Finance Minister Ken Lipenga had predicted inflation to average 18.4 percent in 2012 from an average of 7.6 percent in 2012 with the prospects of decelerating to 16.1 percent in 2013 as full recovery begins.

NSO’s Malawi Consumer Price Indices Dashboard - September 2012

NSO’s Malawi Consumer Price Indices Dashboard – September 2012

The ReserveBank ofMalawi (RBM) Governor, Charles Chuka, on his part, had expected inflation to be between 21 and 24 percent end-year with an average of between 17.5 percent and 19.8 percent for the year.

The figures from the NSO therefore confirm one thing: “an economic tsunami” has hit mother Malawi.

To make matters worse, analysts’ predictions are that the country’s inflation will continue soaring in the next few months mainly as a result of the liberalization of the exchange rate regime, which has raised the price of the US dollar by about 70 percent.

The global authority on monetary matters, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on its part, believes that Malawi’s fiscal and monetary policies shouldceteris paribus put inflation back on a downward path sometime in 2013.

All these developments, mean that life in Malawi, for the ordinary man and woman, is unbearably painful and will not improve anytime soon. Prices of basic commodities have and will continue to sky-rocket, while incomes, have and will at best stagnate, or even lose buying power.

As a result, in an effort to honestly secure enough money to put food on the table, workers are asking their employers – most of whom have increased prices of their products citing this and that – to raise their wages.

Since these demands are going unheeded at best, and at worst being met with threats of dismissal; the workers are, as is their constitutional right, staging strikes – most of which have been peaceful save for the occasional singing and chanting – which go with the territory. And now we come back to our subject, the new Malawi Human Rights Commission.

In this economic mayhem, the new MHRC has found a convenient scape goat in the striking employees. It says that those workers employed in essential services, and striking for better wages, are the ones at fault and violating human rights.

What a load of bollocks!

The MHRC says it is worried with the industrial actions by employees working in essential services such as, health and water utilities, which have on a number of occasions disrupted service provision by the sectors.

It cites strikes staged by staff from Blantyre and Lilongwe Water Boards, Escom, Kamuzu Central Hospital and Zomba Central Hospital. The MHRC Chairperson Sophie

Kalinde said, in a statement, that much as her institution sympathises with the demands by the employees from the various essential service delivery institutions, the consequences of their strikes have had disastrous effects on Malawi.“It is a known fact that water is life and any curtailing of the supply of this service leads to a violation of a number of human rights as provided for in the Republic of Malawi Constitution and the International Human Rights instruments to which Malawi is a party.

“The human rights that may be threatened include the right to water, right to enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, right to an adequate standard of living, the right to a clean environment and, above all, the right to life.

“Additionally, the disruption of health services at public hospitals puts the lives of many people; including vulnerable groups like children, women, people with disabilities and the elderly, at great risk.

“Patients cannot access adequate health care services if health employees are on strike. This is an immense threat and, indeed, a violation of the right of life because during the period of strikes or lockout deaths were reported from some health institutions which may have resulted from negligence of striking health employees,” said Kalinde.

According to MHRC, though the Malawi constitution and the Labour Relations Act provide for the right to hold peaceful demonstrations, the right has limitations. Mrs Kalinde then cites the Labour Relations Act saying it states that “an employer or employee carrying on or engaged in an essential service shall not strike or lockout in connection with any essential service.”

While I agree with the fact that curtailing of the supply of essential services leads to a violation of a number of human rights as provided for in the Republic of Malawi Constitution and International Human Rights instruments to which Malawi is a party; I find it surprising that the MHRC has chosen to only focus at the wrong end of the problem: the striking workers – who too are victims.

They are victims of executive gambling, worsened by an increasing love for cheap applause. They are people trying to eke out an honest living in a challenging economic environment, hence the strikes.

Missing from the MHRC’s unfortunate statement is an admonition to their employers. And most of the strikers (in essential service provision) are employed by the Malawi Government; the same government that can afford a lot of other things for example, globetrotting, but cannot pay decent wages to the people who are supposed to provide the essential services such as, health and water utilities to the villagers deserted by their chiefs who, we are told, must be with the president as she goes gallivanting in her Gulliver’s Travels!Now, the MHRC is telling us, it is the workers violating human rights!

The Malawi Government and its leadership, imbued with the wrong priorities and a penchant for playing to the international gallery while its Rome is burning; is the one failing the employees. Hence the employees’ resorting to the last possible and legal course of action: staging strikes.

The Malawi Government, as we speak, is busy dishing out millions to various cartels in settlement of suspicious claims without putting up a fight.

The MHRC’s “worry” is therefore totally misplaced and misdirected. It should be worried about the executive and its ability to lead the country out of the mess we are in. It should be worried that the executive is busy building a political empire, at the expense of pressing national priorities.

Against this background, what I and indeed any sane person, would have expected to see and hear is that the MHRC has:

  1. done its home-work,
  2. gotten to the root of the problem, and
  3. in the least, come up with a balanced critique that in no uncertain terms reminds the government – the employer – to be proactive in dealing with workers’ grievances – and doing that in a timely manner  – to avoid disruption of services.

This is because in the final analysis, it is not the striking workers who violate human rights, the buck stops right on the door of the Malawi Government and its leadership. To leave no-one in doubt, we are talking President Joyce Banda here; any references to anyone resting six feet deep, are not and will not be helpful at all as they will only serve to re-open old wounds.

With references to yesterday, people are reminded that yesterday, we were singing the same song: condemning executive arrogance and spendthriftness,condemning the awarding to tenders to relatives, party funders and loyalists; which today is increasingly becoming the norm. So, please spare us and save the history for historians to write about.

To conclude, I hope that this is the last we have seen of lopsided statements that only scratch the surface. Statements like these, deliberately designed to downplay and hide underlying currents, should be productions of party spokespersons, not human rights commissioners.

And if this (turning a blind eye and scape-goating the real victims) becomes a trend, we might as well do away with the Malawi Human Rights Commission. We will have to get rid of this current one or else it will have to find another name. If it continues to deliberately ignore the root cause of the problems – i.e. why the workers are striking -we will acuse it of “reverse praise singing”  and not be off the mark.

Should we christen the new MHRC as Malawi Reverse Praise-Singers Commission (MRPSC) perhaps? This would not be a bad idea, if it continues barking up the wrong trees. Praise singing, sugar-coating crises and scape-goating will not get Malawi out of this tsunami.

We need proactive leadership, assisted by analytical and critical state organs, civil society, media and indeed the public at large. Look at this: we sang, danced and praised Kamuzu for thirty years, Muluzi for ten, then Mutharika – where did the praise-singing leave us?

Albert Einstein was not a fool to assert that “Insanity is doing the same thing, over and over again, but expecting different results.” Sadly, here we are, at it again, as if our lives depend on it!

I rest my case.

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