June 11, 2003

Opposition rejects draft constitution

Swaziland's banned political parties have rejected a draft constitution put together by a palace-appointed committee and released with fanfare at the beginning of the month.

"We are of the opinion that the palace-authored constitution is just what we expected: those in power do not write themselves out of power. They grab more power. This is what King Mswati and his brothers have done," said Bongani Masuku, secretary-general of the Swaziland Solidarity Network. The pro-democracy group, which operates out of Pretoria, South Africa, held a panel discussion in Braamfontein on King Mswati's proposed constitution, presented to the public after a seven-year delay on 31 May.

The draft constitution tries to wed traditional leadership structures with issues of human rights and gender equality, while securing the king's political power, unaffected by national elections. It offers freedom of association and assembly in a bill of rights, but within a political framework that renders political parties ineffectual.

"(The pro-democracy movement) will not participate in the October parliamentary elections. To do so would be to validate the new constitution, which we have been rejecting since the long and shameful drafting process began in 1996," said panel member Obed Dlamini, a former prime minister who is now president of the banned political party, the Ngwane National Liberatory Congress. Masuku said Mswati's call for a national discussion on the draft constitution over the next few months would be rejected.

Women in Law of Southern Africa, a gender equality advocacy group, has noted that the draft contains some novel ideas in what remains a deeply conservative country. But in an article published on Tuesday, June 10, the group expressed concern that the constitution, even when passed by King Mswati, might be secondary to Swazi Law and Custom, the traditional laws that assign legal minority status to women.

However, if the constitution did become the supreme law of the land, the women's group could find room for optimism: "Let us all, men and women alike, embrace these changes that will come with the new constitutional order for a better and prosperous Swaziland."

The International Commission of Jurists Centre for the Independence of Judges and Lawyers (ICJ/CIJL) organisation on Tuesday released a report that found the draft constitution a step toward a resolution of the "rule of law" crisis that has paralysed jurisprudence in the kingdom, but not the final solution. "Threats to judicial independence, in violation of international human rights standards, are deeply rooted and routine in Swaziland. The issuance of a draft constitution by the government of Swaziland is a positive step towards the resolution of the rule of law crisis, however, further concrete measures need to be taken," said the ICJ/CIJL report.

The ICJ/CIJL view is similar to that of foreign envoys in Swaziland, that the draft constitution is a point of departure. The Swaziland Coalition of Concerned Civil Organisations, which included labour, business and legal groups, seems willing to engage government in a constitutional debate. Banned political parties are now rejecting the draft constitution outright. The view from the palace is that cosmetic changes may be allowed in the final constitution, but not a fundamental political shift away from royal governance. (IRIN)

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