As a group, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) member states have seen a slow but steady 10-year decline in human rights and democracy. Restrictive legislation and policies throughout the SADC region have eroded the environment for the protection of human rights, including laws targeting freedoms of association, assembly, and expression and the criminalization of the work of human rights defenders and civil society organizations (CSOs). ABA ROLI’s Advancing Rights in Southern Africa (ARISA) program worked to improve the recognition, awareness, and enforcement of human rights in the SADC region through development of training sessions with lawyers and paralegals, strategic litigation, tools for judicial officials, and impactful reporting. The program specifically focused on indigenous peoples’ rights, women’s customary land rights, media freedoms and digital rights, and the Angolan elections.
Over five years, between 2018 and 2023, ABA ROLI’s work across seven countries in Southern Africa—Angola, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, and South Africa—supporting nearly 80 cases with courts or decision-making bodies and twelve organizations with subgrants. The program’s final calendar year included the culmination of work over the grant period:
General support to human rights and human rights defenders. In 2023, ABA ROLI delivered a training workshop to lawyer and paralegal teams from a collection of partner organizations from throughout the five-year program on paralegalism. The goal was to provide legal CSOs with the skills and knowledge required to effectively leverage paralegals for human rights litigation in Southern Africa. In June, ABA ROLI held a trial observation training for legal practitioner/lawyer human rights defender participants from Angola and Mozambique. The Southern African Human Rights Defenders' Network has established a social media site as the final product of the human rights defender advocacy project. This platform hosts ARISA's report, manual and guide outputs, and provides regional human rights defenders with a means to share their knowledge and support one another well into the future.
Angolan elections. Through subgrants to the Associação Mãos Livres (English, Free Hands Association) and the Angola Bar Association, ABA ROLI collaborated to create an observation report for the August 2022 national elections in Angola and file five cases/complaints in court or with relevant bodies related to the elections. One example was a case with the National Electoral Commission complaining about partisan reporting by state media during the elections. An ABA ROLI-trained individual from the Lubango Province used the knowledge and skills they gathered from a training session on electoral litigation to further train members of the Provincial Bar Association on electoral rights litigation. The person also applied their newly acquired knowledge by intervening in an electoral matter. The training session was facilitated by ABA ROLI and the Angola Bar Association.
Women’s customary land rights. With ARISA’s support, program subgrantees across the region have charted a progressive path forward on behalf of women in customary land disputes. This is perhaps most apparent in Lesotho, where program sub grantees Seinoli Legal Centre and Federation of Women Lawyers Lesotho (FIDA) filed a total of four cases to assert women’s customary land rights in Lesotho’s courts as part of their sub awards. Seinoli also presented their concerns on behalf of their clients separately before the Parliament of the Republic of South Africa and the African Development Bank, highlighting the impacts of Phase II of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project on women. Around the same time, FIDA submitted a report to the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, its Causes, and its Consequences. The report highlights the impact of a provision in Lesotho’s Constitution which allows for discrimination and limits the rights of women and girls. ABA ROLI supported the Women and Law in Southern Africa – Lesotho Chapter by reviewing their heads of argument and providing financial support for their filing an amicus brief in a Constitutional Court case that challenges the principle of male primogeniture in relation to inheritance at customary law. This multi-pronged advocacy strategy of pressure at national, regional, and international levels creates real opportunity for change beyond the lifetime of this project.
Indigenous peoples’ rights. In 2023, ARISA produced a report highlighting the status of rural Mozambican women’s access to justice on land rights issues in the context of the proposed National Land Policy and a sister report on similar issues in Eswatini. Further, ABA ROLI subgrantees filed cases; produced reports addressing sexual and reproductive health rights of indigenous peoples in Namibia, developed guidance to establishing, administering, and holding community property associations to account in South Africa; and built on our trainings of indigenous rights advocates.
Media freedoms and digital rights. Following the 2022 Judicial Symposium on Digitization in Nairobi, Kenya with the Democratic Governance and Rights Unit at the University of Cape Town and the Southern Africa Chief Justices Forum, ABA ROLI produced a bench book for regional judiciaries on computer crimes and cybercrimes. The bench book was validated through a 2023 workshop for pairs of one judge and one judicial officer from several regional judiciaries. The participants discussed the relevant law and the proposed use of the tool in relevant cases. ABA ROLI’s Deputy Chief of Party for the ARISA program highlighted ARISA’s enduring work in the digital rights space on a panel entitled, “The role of modern technologies in dispute resolution in national courts, tribunals, and other regional courts,” at the Southern and East Africa Chief Justices’ Forum annual meeting in late October. The bench book remains a critical tool for judges in the region who are increasingly faced with making determinations on cases connected to this issue.