Malawi: A state in decline

The human rights situation in Malawi is degenerating rapidly. This year has seen the government, headed by President Bingu wa Mutharika, become an authoritarian regime openly resistant to criticism and human rights governance.  In particular, Mutharika has cracked down on protestors, civil society, human rights defenders, academics and the media – allegedly because he does not like what they are saying about his government.

In July, citizens of Malawi took to the streets in Blantyre, Lilongwe, Mzuzu and Karonga, to protest against fuel shortages, high cost of living, unemployment, repressive legislation and poor governance. This anti-government demonstration, organised by human rights and religious groups, was marred with violence.

Contrary to international standards, the police opened fire on unarmed protestors, allegedly resulting in the death of 18 people. Journalists in particular were singled out, and were arrested, harassed and beaten. Mass arrests were carried out, and an estimated 500 people were detained and later released without charge. A media black-out was ordered and the press was banned from airing live broadcasts of the protests.  Nyasa Timeswas hacked and taken offline.

The local press tells it all

In an extraordinary move, police officers that participated in the bloody crackdown have been rewarded with a cash equivalent of two nights pay whilst government critics, civil society actors and human rights defenders have been blamed for the bloodshed.

The President regularly threatens voices critical of his government. Malawian society has been penetrated with fear as the President has publicly vowed to ‘smoke out’ dissenters. He has publicly declared a ‘war’ against his critics. Human rights defenders have been subjected to threats, intimidation and harassment, with the offices and homes of some activists even being petrol bombed and journalists receiving death threats.  The authorities, however, continue to drag their feet and fail to conduct independent and thorough investigations. As state sponsored harassment continues unabated, activists have gone into hiding. The actions of the Mutharika government are reminiscent of the dark days of the Banda dictatorship that ruled Malawi until 1994.

The government has also introduced repressive laws to control the media, amending the penal code to allow a minister to ban publications deemed not to be in the public interest. Alarmingly, police authorities have also been granted broad powers to search private property without a warrant and to shoot to kill.

Furthermore, new measures also require anyone wishing to protest to pay a hefty fee of about $13,000.  As a stark example, five activists who peacefully protested for a referendum and government accountability in October have since been arrested and detained. They are now facing trial for their alleged illegal demonstration.

Malawi is a party to the African Charter of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Both treaties enshrine the rights to life, expression, association and assembly. The onus is on the government to translate its obligations into action – to make sure that these basic fundamental human rights are observed in Malawi.  Yet, tellingly, the government has failed to submit state reports on the steps it is taking to implement its human rights obligations at a local level. The state report on the realization of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is 16 years late.

It is a regime that has become increasingly resistant to human rights and accountability. In response, foreign donors, including the British, German and US government have suspended aid to Malawi. The African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights recently passed a resolution that calls on the government to end the campaign of intimidation against civil society.  A collective of human rights organisations and actors have also called on the Special Rapporteur for Human Rights Defenders to visit the country.

The Mutharika regime must respect the rights of those defending the principles of human rights, and democracy which are fundamental values of the Commonwealth – which Malawi is a part of. Unless the government takes its human rights obligations seriously, it is going to plunge Malawi deeper into decline.

* Sanyu Awori  is  Programme Officer, Strategic Initiatives Programme, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative

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