In 1993 when the country was embracing democratic governance and soon after a national referendum, a new wave of optimism was in the air-that principles of human rights which form the bedrock of democratic rule would be enjoyed by all.
But on December 10 2015, when the country commemorated the International Human Rights Day under the theme Our Rights, Our Freedoms, Always, human rights defenders in the country are questioning whether Malawi citizens have attained a balance of civil and political rights on one hand and economic rights on the other.
In 1948, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) adopted two international treaties in International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
The two covenants, along with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, became the International Bill of Human Rights that sets out the civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights that are the birth right of all human beings.
Nevertheless, President Peter Mutharika, in his message on the day, dwelt on positives that the country has achieved over the years in human rights.
“We, the people of Malawi, are proud because we have a strong framework for the protection of human rights. We have an independent Judiciary, strong national human rights institutions such as the Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC), and a vibrant civil society,” said Mutharika in his address.
He further called on Malawians to embrace responsibility towards human rights.
As a punchline, the President commended government for submitting reports at both the United Nations and African Union on the status of human rights in the country.
But Justin Dzonzi, human rights lawyer and executive director for local legal think tank Justice Link, says not all is rosy on the human rights front.
“I would agree with the President that the country has adequate legislation and institutions. But this is not enough.
“This forms just half of the equation, because the other half is operational where these institutions ought to be financed sufficiently to discharge their mandates competently. It is not enough having a conducive legal and institutional framework without resources,” he observes.
Dzonzi uses the example of MHRC, where he is chairperson, saying it annually requires about K350 million for its operation, but only receives not more than K120 million from government.
“When that happens, you have to scale down your activities–which means giving up certain requirements which the law demands, but you are restrained by lack of resources. The result is that the legal and institutional framework that the country has is automatically undermined by these factors,” explains Dzonzi.
While Malawians still cry for the provision of full rights as granted by the country’s Constitution, Dzonzi says this is largely unattainable in a country where a large percentage of public resources go down the drain.
“There has not been a balance between civil and political rights on one hand, and economic rights on the other hand. Perhaps there shall never be such a balance. The reason being that with civil and political rights, there is no demand for financial or human resources in order for the government to comply with those rights,” he says.
Dzonzi, by way of example, says government does not have to spend anything for people to exercise their freedom of expression or association.
“It is more about recognition and restraint on the part of the government. All the State has to do is to recognise it as a right and respect the same.
“But when you are looking at economic, social and cultural rights, they require a lot of financial and material investment for their fulfillment. The right to health, for example, will demand the training of medical personnel, construction of health facilities and the buying of medical drugs all of which cost the government money,” says Dzonzi.
The legal mind says the story is the same across other similar institutions, such as the Law Commission, office of the Ombudsman and the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB).
The country has over the years been battered by numerous challenges, most of which are said to be man-made, such as the plugging out of direct budgetary support by donors.
Government is implementing, for the second year running, a national budget devoid of direct budgetary support from its traditional donors who have requested drastic reforms in a number of sectors, as prerequisites for aid resumption.
To make matters worse, the 20th edition of the Corruption Perceptions Index of 2015 released by Transparency International lumps Malawi among countries that took the biggest dive alongside Turkey, which has gone down five steps, while Angola, China, Malawi and Rwanda all tumbled down four steps each.
ACB deputy director Reyneck Matemba was recently quoted as having said: “It hasn’t come as a surprise, we anticipated it. The massive theft of public money known as Cashgate is definitely one of those factors.”
For Human Rights Consultative Committee chairperson (HRCC), Maxwell Mkwezalamba, corruption has only made lives of poor Malawians worse.
“As a result of rampant corruption, the much needed support for clinics, bridges, provision of piped water, environmental and community-based development activities becomes disturbed. This results in the widening of the gap between the rich and the poor. Corruption retards growth and development and leads to substandard and poor quality work,” he says.
Mkwezalamba, among other things, calls for the quick enactment of the Access to Information (ATI) Bill.
“For human rights to be entrenched in the country, transparency and accountability should be promoted in the spirit of information sharing. This will lead to the naming and shaming of corrupt public officials. Again, we need absolute devolution of power from the central government not just by rhetoric,” he adds.
Amid tensions between the State and civil society organisations (CSOs), Dzonzi believes it is time Malawians graduated into an era of looking at things holistically.
“The relationship between the State and other institutions such as CSOs should never be expected to be cordial or smooth. This is attributed to the fact that the democratic governance system is designed to have sections that provide checks and balances.
In that regard, you do not expect that when MHRC, for example, or CSOs have admonished government on human rights violations, the State will be smiling. But what needs to be understood is that these issues are not personal. We are all trying to help our country in the various roles that we play,” he says. n