Zambia is scheduled to hold general elections on 12 August 2021. The election will be held in the context of democratic backsliding and autocratisation, which has been characterized by shrinking political space and an escalation of human rights violations. In addition, the election is taking place in the midst of a global COVID-19 pandemic, whose impact on Zambia has been exacerbated by an ailing economy further burdened by a sovereign debt crisis, all of which have contributed to wide public discontent against government. This report has researched increased tensions between the government and citizens, particularly those protesting the situation, and documented the government’s response which has been to crack down on the fundamental freedoms traditionally used by citizens in a democracy, to engage in matters of public interest. The major violations covered in this report are:
- Violation of the right to freedom of expression and the media, demonstrated through arbitrary arrests of people particularly under charges of criminal defamation and insult laws. Reports of physical violence against journalists, arbitrary closure of media houses and the raiding and intimidation of radio stations. In addition, recent reports of possible internet shutdowns.
- Violation of the right to personal liberty through the arbitrary arrest of opposition politicians, human rights defenders, and other citizens critical of government;
- Violation of the rights to freedom of assembly and association through the brutal crackdown of peaceful protesters, including opposition parties and their supporters and the disruption of civil society meetings;
- Violation of the right to life, manifest through several cases of extrajudicial killings by State security forces including the police. These concerns have been recently heightened by reports of the deployment of the military ahead of the August 12 elections;
- Lack of access to justice and effective remedies for citizens whose rights have been violated and court cases around the elections;
- Misuse of COVID-19 interventions by the government to target the opposition and civil society organisations as well as restrict the exercise by these groups of rights such as freedom of assembly and association; and
- The enactment of new legislation such as the Cyber Crimes and Cyber Security Act and the Electoral Process (Amendment) Act to further limit fundamental human rights.
Zambia is a state party to all the core United Nations human rights treaties, except the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. At regional level, Zambia has been a member of the African Union (AU), and its predecessor, the Organisation for African Unity (OAU) since 1964 when it attained its independence. It ratified the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights in 1984; African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child in 2008; the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa in 2006 and the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance in 2012.
The UN and AU human rights treaties which Zambia has ratified are legally binding, and provide for the protection of fundamental civil and political rights, which are essential to holding democratic elections. These include the right to life, freedom of expression, association, and assembly and the right to participate in public life on an equal basis. On this basis, the Zambian government has a duty to respect, protect, promote and fulfil these rights.
Leading up to the August 2021 elections, the deterioration of the human rights situation has undermined the ability of citizens to effectively engage in key matters of public interest, and ultimately the political process. It is therefore imperative that regardless of the outcome of August 12, 2021, the emerging government from this election must make a concerted effort to put an end to the ongoing decline in human rights violations referenced in this report. Civil society, which includes non-governmental organisations, opposition political parties, religious organisations and ordinary citizens play an important role in holding all arms of government to account, ensuring that citizens’ concerns are communicated to decision makers. During this COVID-19 pandemic, and as the Zambian government works to eradicate high levels of corruption and turn around the economic crisis, it should encourage a marketplace of ideas which is characterised by full citizenship engagement without retaliation. Zambian civil society is not the enemy. In line with Zambia’s own Constitution, as well as its regional and international human rights obligations and undertaking to uphold recognised democratic principles, this report makes the following recommendations:
- The Zambian authorities, including the Police Service should allow citizens to freely exercise the rights to freedom of expression and the media, peaceful assembly and association, without facing arbitrary arrests and detentions. Furthermore, the government must refrain from internet shutdowns, which not only disrupt the economy, but violate freedom of expression, access to information and online assembly. The duty of the government is to ensure that there exists a conducive environment for the enjoyment of key rights.
- Government should recognize the important role of civil society actors, and as such must respect, protect and promote human rights defenders, civil society activists, journalists and media houses and ensure that they can operate without threats, intimidation and harassment.
- The government should issue unambiguous public orders that under no circumstances will extrajudicial killings by police be tolerated and that prompt, thorough and impartial investigations will be carried out to ensure that perpetrators, regardless of rank will be held accountable.
- COVID-19 interventions should be applied fairly across the political spectrum and designed with the sole purpose to protect the population from the COVID-19 contagion. The pandemic should not be used as an excuse to crackdown on civic space, or to target certain groups.
- Any limitations of human rights by the government should adhere to the strict requirements as outlined under regional and international law, following the principles of (1) legality; (2) serve a legitimate purpose; and (3) must be necessary in a democratic state.
- The Government must refrain from implementing any new legislation in conflict with recognized human rights standards, particularly the Cyber Security and Cyber Crimes Act 2021 and the Electoral Process (Amendment) Act 2021. The new government after the general election should repeal and or revise these laws and other pieces of legislation in order to reconcile them with the Constitution, and Zambia’s regional and international human rights obligations.
- All arms of government, especially the judiciary should ensure the respect and protection of the right to a fair trial and legal redress. In addition, courts must facilitate access to justice, which includes hearing human rights and constitutional matters efficiently and meritoriously.