The Amnesty International says 2017 was a terrible year for human rights in Southern Africa where government leaders like Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Zambia’s Edgar Lungu used the criminal justice system to silence human right activists.

According to the Amnesty International 2017/2018 report on the state of the world’s human rights, the space for human rights defenders, activists, journalists and opposition political parties in Southern Africa is increasingly restricted.

Amnesty International Southern Africa regional director, Deprose Muchena observed that government exhibited widespread punishment of dissenting voices, a rise in politics of hate and politically-motivated attacks on peaceful protests.

Muchena who recently launched the Amnesty report which covers 159 countries, including 11 in Southern Africa, explained in a statement that people across the world faced a deepening human rights crisis fueled by growing intolerance of dissent and a rise in politics of hate and fear.

“The year 2017 was terrible for human rights in Southern Africa. We have witnessed widespread punishment of dissenting voices and politically-motivated attacks on peaceful protests, as well as growing inequalities and precarious access to social and economic rights. But there are glimmers of hope. For example, the departure of Robert Mugabe from Zimbabwe’s political scene after 37 years in power in which he presided over the brutal repression of political opponents offers a new window of opportunity for the country and people claiming their rights,” Muchena stated.

“Whether it was Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe or Edgar Lungu of Zambia, leaders used the criminal justice system [in 2017] to silence human activists and their political opponents. Zambia’s main opposition leader, Hakainde Hichilema of the United Party for National Development (UPND), was jailed for four months on trumped up politically motivated charges and later released after the authorities realized that they could not sustain any criminal charge against him. Musician and activist Fumba Chama, alias Pilato, left Zambia on 5 January, [2018] after receiving threats over his new song Koswe Mumpoto (rat in the pot), which has been interpreted as criticising President Edgar Lungu and his ruling Patriotic Front (PF) ministers. He [Pilato] also faced harassment in 2017 for leading protests against corruption.”

Muchena stated that African governments were rolling back decades of human rights progress and silencing those who spoke out but indicated that there was still hope as courageous people and activists had continued taking to the streets to demand their rights.

“In the absence of global leaders standing up for human rights, governments are shamelessly turning the clock back on decades of hard-won protections. Signs of regression cited in the report include clampdowns on peaceful protests in Zambia, and attempts to roll back women’s rights to access sexual and reproductive health and rights in South Africa and Zimbabwe. Yet these regressive policies have inspired many people to join long-standing struggles, and the report details many important victories that human rights activists helped to secure. These include the indefinite postponement of the amendment to the proposed penal code in Angola which would decriminalize abortion in all cases without exception after public outcry,” Muchena stated.

“Across Southern Africa, courageous people and activists refused to give in to government repression and took to the streets to claim their human rights under difficult circumstances. In Zimbabwe, Pastor Evan Mawarire of the ‘#ThisFlag movement’ was acquitted in November after facing court charges simply for campaigning against corruption, human rights violations and the declining economy. The indomitable spirit of human rights activists leading powerful movements reminds us that the thirst for equality, dignity and justice will never be extinguished. There is a palpable sense that protest movements are on the rise globally.”

Further, Amnesty International secretary general Salil Shetty who spoke during the launch of the Amnesty report said governments would erode their legitimacy if they stood against movements of human rights activism.

“Freedom of expression takes on colossal importance in the renewed battle for human rights. In 2018, we cannot take for granted that we will be free to gather together in protest or to criticize our governments. In fact, speaking out has become more dangerous. Throughout SADC, there was persecution through prosecution against human rights defenders and opposition leaders. Clovis Razafimalala, a Malagasy environmental activist, was released from Tamatave prison after 10 months’ pre-trial detention on trumped-up charges of organizing a protest. However, governments must address the burning injustices fueling protest movements,” Shetty said.

Meanwhile, the Amnesty report reveals that millions of people worldwide were facing increasingly precarious access to basic goods and services such as housing, food and health care.

Shetty warned that unless governments tackle the underlying causes of poverty and inequality, there was huge potential for even greater unrest.

“Throughout the region, there are persistent worries about the rising levels of people living below the poverty line. In Madagascar, poverty is widespread. Access to food, water, health care and education remains a privilege for the few. In Zimbabwe, economic instability, drought, high poverty levels and unemployment are some of the obstacles for many to access education, health and food. Children are affected by extreme poverty and their chances of succeeding in life are slim. South Africa remains one of the highest unequal countries in the world today. Profound inequalities are continuing to undermine economic, social, and cultural rights for millions of South Africans,” warned Shetty.

“Across the world and in the SADC region, people are being forced to live an intolerable existence because they are being denied access to food, clean water, health care and shelter. If you take away these human rights, you breed despair with no limit or end. From Angola to Zambia, South Africa to Zimbabwe, we are witnessing the growth of a ferocious social discontent. If leaders fail to discern what is driving their people to protest, then this ultimately will be their own undoing. People have made it abundantly clear that they want human rights. The onus now is on governments to show that they are listening and responding.”