Opening remarks by UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Kyung-wha Kang at a press conference during her mission to Malawi
Lilongwe, 21 June 2012
Good morning and thank you for joining me today.
Let me begin by saying what a pleasure and privilege it has been to visit Malawi at this pivotal time for the country. Malawi has gone through some particularly tough challenges in recent years, but with the peaceful change of Government, there have been many positive signals indicating the promise of better days to come. In my meetings with Malawian leaders and people, the optimism and hope has been palpable.
During my four days in Malawi, I had the honour of meeting with Her Excellency President Joyce Banda and several ministers, the Speaker of Parliament, the Malawi Human Rights Commission, civil society representatives, the diplomatic community and ordinary Malawians in the villages, and I was able to acquire an overall picture of the human rights situation in the country.
I had a very frank and open dialogue with President Banda, who has swiftly moved to tackle many pressing human rights concerns. I was very much encouraged and impressed by her strong commitment to advancing human rights and the welfare of the people of Malawi. President Banda made it clear that her priority would be to bring the country back on the road to economic recovery, so as to tackle the difficult issues of poverty and provide better protection of economic and social rights for the people. I assured her of our strong support for the commitment of her Government to democratic governance based on human rights. I also informed her that the UN Human Rights Office intends to deploy a senior Human Rights Advisor to the UN country team here. This Human Rights Advisor will also be ready to assist the Government and other stakeholders in Malawi.
As they emerge from a period of political repression, Malawians need to hear from their leadership that the fundamental freedoms of expression, association and assembly will be respected fully, and to see concrete actions taken to demonstrate this commitment.
To this end, we have already seen some significant progress, including the repeal of certain laws that were hostile to fundamental human rights, such as Section 46 of the Penal Code which empowered a cabinet minister to shut down newspapers deemed “contrary to the public interest.” The repeal of the Injunction Law, which granted Government officials total immunity from prosecution, was also an important step in the right direction.
However, much more remains to be done. Accountability remains pending for the violations committed in July last year, when 20 demonstrators were killed through the excessive use of force by security forces during mass demonstrations. I understand that the Commission of Inquiry report on those events has been submitted to the President. I hope that this, in conjunction with the Malawi Human Rights Commission report on the matter, will lead to prompt follow-up action, including impartial investigation and prosecution of those responsible. Impunity for such gross violations would send the wrong message to victims, perpetrators and the wider public, and undermine the rule of law.
The Government also urgently needs to address the many grievances that led to the demonstrations in the first place, with transparency, inclusive dialogue and accountability. The protests were driven by a demand for human rights, including the right to health, to food, to education, and by dissatisfaction with corruption and other governance issues. The President has indicated her intention to establish a new platform for ongoing dialogue with civil society on these and other human rights concerns.
The work of the Ombudsman, the Law Commission and the Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC) is also key. In particular, a strong, independent human rights commission is the anchor of a national human rights protection system. The MHRC has done exemplary work, including through very difficult times in the past year. It is important that the independence and broad mandate of the MHRC are maintained and respected. The Government needs to ensure that these institutions are well-resourced and able to increase their reach beyond Lilongwe and throughout the rest of the country.
Clearly, the barriers to the realisation of the right to food, to health, to education, to an adequate standard of living remain very high in Malawi. Shortages of food, drugs, medical staff and fuel need to be promptly addressed by the authorities with transparency and good governance, and international cooperation.
Yesterday, we visited two communities in Salima where I was able to see clearly the problems that individual families are facing in meeting their basic needs. In one community, the UN (the United Nations Children’s Fund - UNICEF) has been working in partnership with the Government to provide support to very poor, labour-constrained households through a cash transfer programme. The project has contributed significantly to alleviating hunger, reducing malnutrition and improving school enrolment. In speaking to one such family, I was able to appreciate first-hand why President Banda has chosen to prioritise issues of extreme poverty and the right to food in the early stages of her presidency.
Another community we visited demonstrated to us the power of empowerment. Community volunteers, women and men, spoke one after another of the real positive changes they have been able to bring to their homes and villages. Armed only with the awareness of their rights, they have been able to resolve issues ranging from local-level corruption to food insecurity to gender-based violence to access to health and education. They have done so by proactively discussing, prioritising their most pressing needs and communicating them to relevant Government actors. The testimonies of these everyday villagers were truly heartening, and I was very proud of my UN (UN Development Programme) colleagues who are assisting them.
An issue that came up frequently in my discussions over the past few days involves shortcomings in the administration of justice in Malawi. There are also serious concerns about ill treatment and violence, in some cases leading to death, by the police against crime suspects. I welcome the commitment by the new Government to bring back citizens’ trust in the police, and I look forward to seeing this commitment backed up by concrete actions, including training and efforts to fight impunity for such violations. The new police complaints mechanism is a welcome step in the right direction.
Prolonged detention in severely overcrowded holding cells, due to a backlog of cases and the slow processing of bail applications, is another concern. I understand from the Minister of Home Affairs that efforts are being made to resolve overcrowding in holding cells and in prisons and to explore alternatives to detention and imprisonment. We encourage this shift in thinking, and will be ready to provide further assistance on this matter.
Malawi has a very progressive constitution with strong human rights provisions, and a good set of laws and institutions in place to promote and protect human rights. It is now time to strengthen a culture of human rights and the rule of law in Government institutions and in the individuals responsible for the protection, promotion and fulfilment of the full range of human rights for the people of Malawi. I understand that there are a number of draft laws on matters including HIV/AIDS, gender equality, and trafficking in persons that are pending consideration. We hope that the new laws will be in line with international human rights standards.
Civil society plays an indispensible role in helping internalise this culture of human rights and the rule of law in Government and society at large. The role of civil society, particularly in this critical period leading to the 2014 elections, cannot be overstated. There is a need for continued vigilance and civic education by civil society and the media, and the Government must ensure that civil society and the media are guaranteed the space to be able to discharge their crucial roles without fear.
At the international level, in November 2010, Malawi undertook the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), under which each of the 193 Member States of the United Nations had their human rights record scrutinised by their peers before the Human Rights Council in Geneva. Malawi accepted more than 65 recommendations that came out of the review. I encourage the Government to take prompt measures towards implementation of these recommendations, through an inclusive process, so that Malawi’s next appearance before the UPR in 2015 can set an example for others in fulfilling the pledges it has made before the international community.
I have also encouraged the Government to consider inviting relevant UN Special Rapporteurs on thematic human rights issues to Malawi so that they can lend their expertise towards resolving specific human rights problems and challenges in the country. I received encouraging indications from the Minister of Foreign Affairs about issuing a standing invitation to UN Special Rapporteurs to conduct such visits.
The international community should wholeheartedly support Malawi through this pivotal period. This is a momentous opportunity that must not be lost for partners to assist President Banda’s administration in the building of a strong, sustainable democracy upon a sturdy human rights foundation. This is not a time for complacency by national or international actors.
Great challenges lie ahead in advancing the realisation of all human rights – economic, social, civil and political – for all the people of Malawi. But I have seen the political will at the highest levels of Government to face these challenges with courage and vision. Such political will combined with a vibrant civil society, an independent human rights commission and strong, independent voices in the press all indicate that Malawi is up to the challenge. The UN Human Rights office and its partners stand ready to support and accompany Malawi in this promising direction.
In closing, I would like to express my sincere gratitude to the Government and people of Malawi for their hospitality and warmth during my visit. I would also like to thank our colleagues in the UN country team under the energetic leadership of the Resident Coordinator, for their tremendous support. It has indeed been a pleasure.