UN HUMAN RIGHTS COUNCIL
Botswana takes flak over its ‘persecution’ of former president Ian Khama
Botswana’s record on human rights — including its alleged ‘persecution’ of former President Ian Khama — was sharply criticised this week at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.
The Botswana government’s “ongoing politically motivated persecution” of former president Ian Khama, who has fled to South Africa to avoid arrest and persecution, was referred to “specifically and at length” during the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the country carried out at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.
The British law firm Omnia Strategy LLP, which is representing Khama in his prolonged legal battles with the Botswana government, noted in a statement that the persecution of Khama “has included attempts on, and threats against his life”.
Omnia Strategy is owned by Cherie Blair, the wife of the former British prime minister Tony Blair.
Its statement said 30 UN member states at the UPR had made recommendations to Botswana to improve its human rights record.
“Ahead of Botswana’s 2024 elections, States were particularly concerned about civil and political rights, including freedom of expression and the press.”
Omnia Strategy said the UK had called on Botswana to “take effective measures to address threats to democracy by strengthening media freedom, freedom of expression, and transparency and accountability”.
Germany had said Botswana should “guarantee the protection of politicians, journalists and dissidents, investigate intimidation and threats against them… [and] eliminate from legislation all provisions that undermine freedom of the press”.
Switzerland had called on Botswana to “guarantee freedom of the media and freedom of expression and information and take measures to protect media professionals against attacks, harassment and intimidation, especially as the 2024 election approaches”.
Italy had said Botswana should “strengthen efforts to ensure freedom of expression as well as independence and freedom of media; and guarantee a safe and enabling environment for journalists and human rights defenders”.
“And Kenya and Spain had called on Botswana to ensure freedom of opinion, expression, peaceful assembly and association, while Ghana, Honduras and the Netherlands also emphasised the need to repeal legislation restricting those rights,” the statement said.
The vocal criticism of Botswana’s human rights record at the UPR reflects the climate of increasing authoritarianism characterised by the Mokgweetsi Masisi government’s “suppression of free speech, repression of dissent and persecution of political opponents”, Omnia Strategy said.
It said the “persecution” of Khama was a high-profile example of this authoritarianism. It noted that it was this treatment of Khama that had led Dr Agnès Callamard, then Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and now global head of Amnesty International, to issue an urgent appeal to Botswana in March 2021 about the concerns that Khama had expressed to her about threats to his life.
Botswana’s minister of justice, Machana Shamukuni, insisted to the UN Human Rights Council that his government was cooperating with the Special Rapporteur. He said it was dealing with the “inquiry” by Callamard about threats to Khama’s life and that the Botswana police had never received any information about these threats. He said there were currently no outstanding inquiries from the Special Rapporteur about this case.
He responded to Omnia Strategy’s claim that human rights in Botswana were generally deteriorating by insisting: “To the contrary, Botswana continues to perform relatively well in global human rights rankings.”
He said Freedom House, which measures countries’ commitments to political rights and civil liberties, had given Botswana a 72% score in 2022 and 2023. And the World Justice Project Rule of Law Index, which measures the commitments by governments to the rule of law, had ranked Botswana fourth out of 31 sub-Saharan countries and 43rd out of 128 countries globally.
Omnia Strategy responded by saying that Shamukuni had “failed to convince with a series of weak excuses and inaccurate statements, most grievously mischaracterising the nature of Dr Callamard’s Urgent Appeal, trivialising it as an ‘inquiry’ when her action in actuality represents the most serious form of communication that the UN mandate holder can send”.
It said that Shamukuni had also failed to explain why his government had failed to take seriously the threats to Khama’s life.
It noted that Khama had reported these threats to his state-provided security detail and Callamard had conveyed the threats in detail in her urgent appeal to the Botswana government.
Despite this, Botswana had not explained why Khama’s security detail failed to act upon his report of these threats, treat them seriously and investigate them.
It added: “The Government’s continuing refusal to examine the allegations can only be interpreted as a violation and, thereby, tacit admission of the State’s participation in or endorsement of those deadly plans, in breach of international law.
“This is extremely troubling, fatally undermining the Minister of Justice’s empty reassurances that the state is committed to the safety of former President Khama. As a consequence of these unaddressed threats, former President Khama and his family continue to endure anxiety and exile in South Africa, unable fully to participate in the civic life of their country.”
Omnia Strategy also dismissed Shamukuni’s denial that the rule of law in Botswana had deteriorated. It said he had ignored the latest “stinging” criticism from civil society organisations, including Civicus, which recently downgraded Botswana’s human rights protection status from “narrowed” (a status it shared with states such as Australia, France, South Korea and Spain), to the higher-concern “obstructed” rating.
“The Southern Africa Litigation Centre has also described governmental interference with civil and political rights in Botswana as ‘profoundly alarming’. In the same vein, Amnesty International’s latest report, published on 27 March, documented a rise in the number of people going missing in the state, and noted that the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention had found several instances ‘where the country’s laws and practices fell short of international standards’.
“Criticism of the Masisi regime’s human rights record was reinforced by UN Member States’ recommendations during the UPR, where Botswana was asked to ‘allow independent and transparent investigations of cases of extrajudicial arrests, unlawful detentions and arbitrary executions’.
“Over recent years, a series of high-profile events in Botswana have underlined the serious deterioration of human rights in the country,” Omnia Strategy said.
It cited, in particular, the Botswana government’s accusation that Khama had conspired with South African businesswoman Bridgette Motsepe and others in an elaborate money-laundering scheme to finance a political plot to topple Masisi. The two were never formally charged and were exonerated when the case against one of their co-accused, Welheminah “Butterfly” Maswabi, was thrown out of a Botswana court for lack of credible evidence.
Last year the legal pursuit of Khama continued as he was charged with illegal possession of weapons. By then he had fled Botswana to South Africa, where he remains. DM