BENEDICT TEMBO, Johannesburg
THE plight of key populations in Africa was the focus of the three-day workshop for representatives of National Human Rights Institutions (NHRI) and civil society organisations in Johannesburg, South Africa.
The 2nd Regional Capacity Strengthening Convening for NHRIs and CSOs in Sandton highlighted the diversity of vulnerable groups of people exposed to daily human rights violations such as HIV infection and lack of access to health services. Among such groups are persons in detention.
Key populations are people who are vulnerable to HIV (men who have sex with men, people who use drugs, sex workers, transgender people, prisoners and those suffering from tuberculosis).
The September 4 to 7, 2017 workshop hosted by the AIDS and Rights Alliance for Southern Africa (ARASA) was both a platform for NHI representatives to reflect on the performance of their organisations as well as share best practices.
Human Rights Commission chief of information, education and training Mweelwa Muleya said the workshop was also rejuvenating in the sense that the Human Rights Commission and Zambia at large is on the right path, particularly with promoting the rights of persons in detention.
“The Human Rights Commission has a robust programme of inspecting correctional and other detention facilities, but the lesson learnt is that there is need to mainstream the promotion and protection of key population in such monitoring,” Mr Muleya said.
Mr Muleya who is also Human Rights Commission spokesperson said Zambia has taken a continental lead in legal reforms towards promoting and protecting the rights of persons in detention.
“The constitutional change of the name from Prisons to Zambia Correctional Services is fundamental in instilling behavioural change in respect of promoting and protecting the rights of persons in detention or correctional facilities. The enactment of the 2016 amended Constitutional was in many respects a landmark development towards human rights protection in Zambia,” Mr Muleya said.
He also said the recent inspection of correctional facilities by the Ministers of Justice Given Lubinda and his Home Affairs counterpart Stephen Kampyongo, is commendable as it is in line with the Government’s regional and international human rights obligations.
“It is hoped that the first hand and on the spot knowledge of the challenges facing inmates and correctional facilities in general will result in remedial measures such as increased funding and accelerated construction of modern correction facilities around the country,” Mr Muleya said.
He has called for effective collaboration among various stakeholders such as the government, cooperating partners, human rights commission, civil society organisations and the media to address the human rights challenges that affect the country.
Esther Gumboh, a researcher at the Centre for Applied Legal Studies based in the School of Law at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg said the workshop was highly relevant to her work.
“We have a programme which deals with prisoners’ rights and are also a part of the Just Detention Forum which is concerned with the welfare of those in detention,” Dr Gumboh said.
Reflecting on the workshop, Dr Gumboh said there is need to invest more time understanding the challenges key populations face before a decision is made to intervene.
“There is need for consultation and research. Of particular interest to me is the research gaps in the issues concerning the detention of persons with mental disabilities. This is something I hope to take up,” she said.
Annabel Raw, a human rights lawyer working for the Southern African Litigation Centre, a regional human rights organisation whose role is primarily to support lawyers and organisations at country level to take up human rights cases in courts and to provide technical support for legal advocacy, said ARASA’s workshop was really important because NHRIs are really valuable and have great potential to provide access to justice, accountability and safe and effective remedies on HIV-related human rights violations and for key populations in particular.
SALC works with Zambian lawyers and non-profit organisations to take up human rights cases and provide support for human rights advocacy.
“The Zambian Human Rights Commission’s response to the announcement of mandatory testing recently is an excellent example, the Commission spoke out against mandatory testing and recognised it for the human rights violation that it is,” she said.
She added: “This is an important statement at a time when activism by people living with and affected by HIV and by human rights organisations is constrained by the state of emergency.”
She said it’s also important that the Commission can raise these important issues to ensure human rights are considered in policy making to prevent violations and prevent unnecessary litigation.
“I think ARASA’s platform for a space for regional NHRIS to meet is useful to create opportunities for exchanges of ideas, challenges, strategies and opportunities across countries that may share a lot of similar challenges. We have a lot to learn from each other in the region,” Ms Raw said.
Olaniyi Omodara, of the National Human Rights Commission of Nigeria said key populations are not less human beings.
Mr Omodara admitted that the Nigerian human rights defenders have not had a proper focus on the issue of key populations.
“We have to mainstream their rights into our work and collaboration with civil society organisations and other relevant agencies of government, including the National Assembly to give the rights of these people a place,” he said.
For George Morara, the commissioner and vice-chairperson of the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, said the workshop provided space for learning and expression and experience sharing for NHRI and CSOs.
Mr Morara has pledged to work for the promotion of the rights of all key populations in Kenya.
His sentiments were shared by Malawi Human Rights Commission director of economic, social and cultural rights Harry Mingochi who has vowed to do more for key and vulnerable populations, especially in complaints handling.
Mr Mingochi intends to raise awareness on issues to do with rights of people detained in prisons, more especially on mental health and study on the issue of consent to marriage and treatment.
Jennifer Williams, the director of Zimbabwe Arise said she learnt about tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS legislation and how key populations can participate, interact with Human Rights Commission and also intervene to protect each other.
“I learnt that LGBTI is out of fashion and now we have SOGIE (sexual orientation, gender, identity expressions. Fascinating but I have to learn and teach others,” Ms Williams said.
She regretted that too much politics in Zimbabwe has overshadowed human rights and politicians interfere too much in people’s daily rights to enjoy socio-economic rights.
Lynette Mabote, the Programmes Lead at ARASA said the legal and policy environments pose barriers and criminalise people for hosting a virus or a bacteria.
“People who need to access HIV, TB and sexual and reproductive health services (SRH) cannot access them (medical services),” she said.
Ms Mabote said In 1998 UNAIDS defined “HIV risk” as the probability or likelihood of a person becoming infected with the virus. Certain behaviours create, increase, and perpetuate risk.
In July 2014, the World Health Organisation consolidates guidelines called for “HIV Prevention, Diagnosis, Treatment and Care for Key Populations” Implications for programming both public health and equity considerations underlie the need to prioritise and improve HIV services for key populations.