‘Omnibus Bill woes stall birth of Human Rights Commission’


December 10, 2023 marked the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The 2023 theme is Human Rights Education for youth, by youth and with youth Lesotho joined the rest of the world in commemorating the day but a lot still needs to be done to promote respect and protection of human rights.

There is a Human Rights Unit under the Ministry of Justice and Law. Established in 1995 through a decree of Cabinet, the Unit is charged with the mandate of coordinating protection and promotion of human rights in the country.

Public Eye’s RELEBOHILE TSOAMOTSE (RT) spoke to MAKATLEHO ‘MOLOTSI (MM), the Chief Legal Officer based in the Human Rights Unit to better understand the efforts of the Unit in promoting respect for human rights.   

RT: Please explain the mandate or functions of the Human Rights Division?

MM: The Unit has a three-pronged mandate, that is; promotion, protection and monitoring of human rights in the country. Under the promotion mandate, the Unit is responsible for engaging different strategies to promote human rights education and knowledge within the Government as well as the private sector including members of the public. In relation to the protection mandate, the Unit is responsible for spearheading activities leading to the establishment of the National Human Rights institutions such as the Human Rights Commission. Lastly, monitoring of human rights relates to the co-ordination of state party reporting on human rights.

RT: In your view, how would you describe the status of human rights in Lesotho in relation to our neighbours?

MM: When we speak about the status of human rights, we need to look at the laws and policies – institutional frameworks; we also need to look at their impact on people on the ground. That is, do they sufficiently enable everyone to enjoy human rights on equal basis?

Without a thorough research, I can’t compare as such but I could say Lesotho has and is making progress in relation to the institutional framework protecting and promoting human rights, taking into consideration the fact that promotion of human rights is progressive work.

However, there are some limitations evident in our institutional framework and the implementation thereof hence there is still room for improving the institutional framework and the implementation strategies and efforts to ensure ever-rising progress in promotion, protection and realisation of human rights for everyone in Lesotho.

RT: What are the most prevalent human rights violations in Lesotho and why do you think that is the case?

MM: Speaking on behalf of the Unit and looking at our mandate, I can’t single out the most prevalent human rights violation but what I believe is prevalent violation is limited ability on the part of government to put in place adequate measures to safeguard human rights for all. For example, measures to equally safeguard the rights of minority groups such as women, sexual minorities, the disabled and others who usually do not have a solid and loud voice speaking on their behalf.

When a question like this comes up, people are often quick to cite violations like rape, GBV, etc, but I personally believe people are quick to cite certain violations because there are voices that speak to those violations whereas there are other equally serious or deep violations happening to some people but because there is no voice or noise about those violations, nobody speaks about them.

I will give an example. There are several movements on women and children’s rights so there are voices speaking on that hence we will know or hear about reports such as prevalent killings of women and children.

But, take for instance indigenous people, a lot of their rights are violated on a daily basis and most are not even reported but because there is no solid voice on their plight, we are not even aware of them. So I would argue that the biggest violation of human rights is omission on the part of the state to take the necessary steps or level the ground for protection of rights.

RT: Are there any distinct patterns of human rights violations between rural and urban areas? Are there differences?

MM: Yes, I would say there are patterns and they are brought by systems addressing human rights. Take legal aid, for instance, it is an initiative aimed at helping indigent people vindicate or defend their rights through the courts but you find that it is not available at district level. As a result, it is mostly accessed by people from Maseru who have access to information to know that such an office exists.

However, if you go to rural villages, people are comparatively not accessing legal aid either because they do not know about it or because it is difficult or costly to get to Maseru in order to access it so they must wait until the Legal Aid makes outreaches.

RT: What programmmes is the ministry running to promote respect for human rights?

MM: Remember I said ours is to co-ordinate and it includes educational programmes to different government departments and units. For instance, we sometimes target police officers or law enforcement officers in general on the respect for human rights and capacitate them on issues such as handling of suspects while also observing human rights principles. We also educate correctional services officers on compliance with human rights standards. On top of that, we sometimes target Parliamentarians and remind them that when making laws they should take into consideration people’s human rights.

We are also involved in the co-ordination for establishment of human rights institutions knowing that the institutions are important because some violations are done by the state itself. In order to curb those violations, we need independent bodies such as a Human Rights Commission which will play a huge role in the protection and promotion of human rights and to complement us as a division.

Presently, our capacity is limited due to resources. As a unit, we are a team of only three; we are centralised and even if we wanted to run several programmes we don’t just sit down and say we are limited but we partner with civil societies already engaged in the work and that is how we expand our capacity. 

RT: What is the Unit/ministry’s approach when there are human rights violations?

MM: We advise the parties involved regarding measures that have to be taken. Parties can either be individuals, groups or institutions both private and public even businesses.

RT: Are the current laws we have protecting people’s rights sufficiently or would you suggest improvements?

MM: As I have mentioned earlier, promotion, protection and realization of human rights is progressive. There is need for improvement in relation to laws, policies, implementation strategies to speed up the country’s process to proactively and reactively respond to human rights issues sufficiently. I can make an example of the Chapter 2 of our Constitution which does not recognize the socio-economic rights and collective rights as rights defendable before the courts of law. This approach by our constitution is comparatively not human rights progressive.

In addition, there is a need for the adoption of a human rights progressive National Compensation Policy that would guide, amongst others, the compensation of people affected by the large development projects in the country to curb the reported incidences of human violations emanating from such projects.

RT: How do you use local government structures to promote respect for human rights? If you do, how often do you hold the meetings?

MM: Yes, existing community structures serve as the solid and most relevant entry points for us in comunities the absence of which would make our work difficult and somewhat futile. How often? I can say always when we work with the communities.

RT: Gender Based Violence deprives women of their right to dignity. What is the action plan on GBV? What plan did you have in the past and what has been the success? How do you measure it?

MM: Right now we have some activities in the pipeline under a three-year project titled “Support for Reforms and Strengthening of Governance in Lesotho supported by the Delegation of the European Union to Lesotho”.

Under this programme we will hold community outreaches raising awareness on issues of GBV. We will be teaching communities what GBV is, how they may know that they are dealing with GBV and measures they can take to prevent it and to seek redress when it has occurred.

Issues of GBV are usually not appropriately addressed in communities because they are usually not recognized in communities or when they are recognized, communities are not empowered to deal with them appropriately and sufficiently for instance, when a girl is subjected to sexual violence orders are made that the perpetrator and the victim should marry.

To maximize the positive impact of the programme, the Unit will partner with relevant stakeholders such as the Ministry of Gender, Gender, Child, Gender and Protection Unit, other Civil Society organizations and many more.

RT: Information Rights – what are you doing for citizens, particularly youth to access internet information?

MM: Currently the right to access information by youth is mostly limited by the lack of knowledge about this right by the rights holders (youth). This is the case worldwide hence this year’s theme. We engage in human rights education deliberately targeting the youth. I can say that the Unit has been limited by resources to educate youth robustly about their rights however, this shall be done under the project as I have mentioned earlier.

RT: At what stage of the establishment of the Human Rights Commission are we?

MM: The establishment of the Human Rights Commission was awaiting the passing of the Omnibus Bill (The Bill that contained the National Reforms Processes). The current status shall be clear after the government pronounces the steps it shall take following the judgment of the case that challenged the reforms processes. This happened after the government decided not to operationalize the Commission after the suit by the Civil Society Organizations claiming that the Commission so established under the Human Rights Commission Act 2011 was not in harmony with the international standards of the National Human Rights institutions tabulated under the Paris Principles. To harmonize the commission with the international standards, the constitutional provision establishing the Human Rights Commission was therefore revised to harmonize it with the Paris Principles. The so revised provision was put in the Omnibus Bill.

RT: Reproductive and health rights – how updated are you on what people need in as far as sexual and reproductive health rights are concerned?

MM: People need equal and equitable access to these services. Ours as the Unit is to monitor the way services are delivered, to see if services resonate with human rights principles. What we have noticed is that indeed there are initiatives that are there not only by government but even civil societies providing Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR). What we track is whether or not those services are being offered in line with principles of Human Rights as well as issues of equity and equality in provision of those services.

For instance, there are initiatives by the Ministry of Health like provision of SRHR for adolescence/youth. So we track their approach in offering those services and see issues such as if the services are accessible to everyone and what we have noticed is that indeed the services are there. We applaud that but there is need for services to be intersectional to include other groups of society such as the disabled and members of the LQBTQI+.

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