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Volume 817: debated on Wednesday 12 January 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) report Holding eSwatini to Account: Assessing the Country’s Compliance with the Commonwealth Charter, published on 5 March 2021, what plans they have to use their position as a member of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group to initiate an investigation into potential breaches of the Commonwealth Charter by the government of Eswatini; and what steps they will take to support the implementation of the recommendations in the ITUC report.

My Lords, Her Majesty’s Government frequently raise concerns about human rights and governance within eSwatini. My colleague, the Minister for Africa, Vicky Ford, recently visited and spoke to the Prime Minister and, at his request, the King about the civil unrest and tackling its underlying causes, many of which were highlighted by the ITUC. The Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group is a confidential forum that subsequently enables discreet engagement by members. I cannot comment on the detail of the action the UK will take as a member of that group.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. All that has really been achieved are belated promises of dialogue made by the last absolute dictatorship on the African continent, after a year of government repression and killing with no progress on the reforms the protesters are demanding. The intervention by SADC and the Commonwealth Secretariat has been completely ineffective. Will the Minister tell them to toughen up their approach? Will he ensure that the UK’s representative in Eswatini engages with the local trade union movement? Will the Minister meet our TUC, which commissioned this damning report, to discuss its recommendations and what the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group can do to address them?

My Lords, I am always willing to meet. I will work with the noble Lord to arrange that meeting. On what is happening in country in Eswatini, the noble Lord is quite right to draw attention to the work of the African countries, particularly SADC. As he will know, the President of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, visited and met directly with the King of Eswatini. The three countries involved through SADC are also Commonwealth countries, so we are engaging in a very co-ordinated way. Our ambassador regularly makes representations directly to the Government. I spoke to him only two days ago.

My Lords, the strength of the ITUC report is that it includes African members of the Commonwealth too. Shortly before the lockdown, I led a CPA UK delegation to Namibia. The Namibian TUC is one of the organisations that has been raising consistent concerns. Can the Minister go a little further about the role of the UK chair-in-office? We currently have a cherished position before the next CHOGM regarding the protection of human rights, freedom of assembly and expression, and media freedom. I know that this is a priority for the Minister. What can we do as chair-in-office as practical action steps, rather than purely dialogue, to emphasise the benefits of the Commonwealth family?

My Lords, I pay tribute to the work of the noble Lord—he is aware that I very much appreciate his insights on the countries he visits. Specifically on what the Commonwealth can do, CMAG is different from our role as chair-in-office, so that we can provide support and funding for human rights, and have done so. On the specifics in Eswatini, we are also aware of like-minded partners. For example, on the education side, an initiative was taken recently by a trade union within Eswatini and a trade union in South Africa, supported by a trade union in Finland, to provide support and to stand up for justice and the rights of workers.

My Lords, the Minister just mentioned the position of chair-in-office since the London CHOGM. The London CHOGM achieved quite a lot on significant issues on LGBT rights. One of the sad things in the ITUC’s report is the terrible conditions for LGBT people and the fact that the sexual and gender minorities group has been banned. Can the Minister tell us what we are doing to try to ensure that this issue is covered in dialogue?

My Lords, the noble Lord is right to draw attention to our role as chair-in-office. We put LGBT rights at the heart of our work on human rights within the Commonwealth. I am pleased to share with him that a number of countries, particularly South Africa and Botswana, have made progressive steps on this agenda and they are engaging directly on this issue with the Eswatini Government.

My Lords, I am very pleased to hear the Minister’s agreement to meeting the TUC and the international TUC because this is an excellent report. Does the Minister agree that, given our long history of close association with the people of what people of my generation used to call Swaziland—that is where we are talking about—this would be a good opportunity to encourage local participation in dialogue which could be the main road to a positive outcome?

My Lords, as it is the preference of the country, I will continue to refer to it as Eswatini. The engagement and the proposal that SADC has put forward are to ensure that all communities are represented. There is a tinkhundla system of government within Eswatini and we need to ensure that local representative voices are leveraged.

My Lords, I served as high commissioner to Eswatini. I do not doubt for one moment the Minister’s commitment to the Commonwealth, but can he point to one single thing that this discreet and confidential engagement by the ministerial action group has produced by way of improvements in human rights in Eswatini, Cameroon or anywhere else in the Commonwealth where human rights are daily abused?

My Lords, there is a lot we have achieved in our role as chair-in-office. The noble Lord will know from his experience in Eswatini that it is right that there is a level of discretion and confidentiality when it comes to discussions within the CMAG group, which he will know well. In this regard, the Commonwealth Secretariat has engaged directly. When you profile issues, such as the abuse of human rights, on an international stage and have representatives of multilateral organisations, such as the Commonwealth, visiting and making the case, it makes a difference. We will continue to act in unison with our Commonwealth partners.

My Lords, are the Government considering getting in touch with the International Labour Organization to see what it can do to help in this unsatisfactory situation? Eswatini is a blot on southern Africa in the way that it treats workers’ rights.

My Lords, I can assure the noble Lord that the ILO itself, because of its interests, is already involved in discussions in this respect. I will certainly follow up to see whether it can play a further role when it comes to the issues currently in Eswatini.