What international pressure on Swaziland?

Swaziland is not an issue or concern in most countries around the world.  This can be seen by the fact that most foreign ministries do not have details on Swaziland on their websites – somewhat symptomatic of the international community’s lack of interest in regard to the country’s repeated human rights violations, poverty and lack of democracy.

It can also be seen in the fact that only Taiwan, Mozambique, South Africa and the USA have diplomatic missions in Swaziland, although 47 other countries have diplomatic missions with Swaziland in neighbouring countries South Africa and Mozambique. Ten accredited ambassadors or honorary consuls are resident in Swaziland.

Swaziland, for its part, maintains diplomatic missions in Brussels, Copenhagen, Kuala Lumpur, London, Maputo, Nairobi, Pretoria, Taipei, the United Nations, and Washington, in seeking to “establish and maintain international relations and cooperation between the Kingdom of Swaziland and the international community,” as can be read on the Swazi Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade website.

The apparent lack of interest for the situation in Swaziland is a problem for the democratic movement in the country.

On the other hand, the recent popular revolts in Egypt and elsewhere in North Africa and the Middle East show that democratisation can happen without international pressure or help. And when one reads characterisations of Mubarak’s repressive regime, the similarities to Swaziland are striking: a censored public space, emergency laws, an apathetic population, economic stagnation and poverty, official corruption, American subsidies, and high unemployment. Perhaps one of the main differences, however, between Swaziland and North Africa and the Middle East is that the rich nations have an interest in these areas for various socio-political reasons and that the press, including the pan-Arab Al Jazeera, take a critical interest in these nations.

As for Swaziland, searching for news on the kingdom in the international media is more or less futile – although some international newspapers, such as the British Guardian, the South African Mail & Guardian, and the American New York Times do cover Swaziland rather infrequently (the best daily source of news on Swaziland, outside the self-censored Swazi media, is the independent Swazi Media Commentary). The diplomatic interest, pressure or criticism is also limited. Those foreign ministries that do mention Swaziland either speak of their good relations with Swaziland, or cautiously touch upon Swaziland’s poor human rights record.

Swaziland’s former colonial power’s foreign office, The United Kingdom Foreign Office, speaks of the UK’s “long historical links between the UK and Swaziland” and of how “relations between the two countries remain good,” but also regrets that “many of the provisions contained in the Constitution have still to be enacted.”

The U.S. Department of State “seeks to maintain and strengthen the good bilateral relations that have existed since the kingdom became independent in 1968” and says it has seen “significant improvements have been made concerning rule of law over the past few years.” In September 2010, U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, said in a press release that the USA will “remain a full partner with Swaziland as you seek to strengthen good governance and rule of law, and promote economic development.”

Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs speaks warmly of Taiwan’s relationship with Swaziland, the only country in Africa to recognize it. Taiwan has invested heavily in Swaziland, especially in building 25 factories, virtual sweatshops, that produce various textile products. The ministry also mentions Vice President Vincent C. Siew’s visit to Swaziland in September 2010, where he “exchanged views with King Mswati III on cooperative projects, toured Taiwan’s medical and technical missions in Swaziland, and met with Taiwanese businessmen in three of the southern African countries.” The ministry concluded “Vice President Siew’s visit was particularly well received in Swaziland.”

And Swaziland’s biggest trading partner (over 90% of Swaziland’s imports and 60% of its exports), South Africa, seems to be intent on the same “quite diplomacy” that has helped keep Mugabe in power in Zimbabwe. In September 2010, the South African Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, said “as regards Swaziland, South Africa follows a policy of good neighbourliness towards the country and structured bilateral relations are reflected in the Joint Bilateral Commission for Co-operation Agreement (JBCC) which South Africa and Swaziland signed in Swaziland on 20 December 2004.”

There are signs, however, that parts of the ANC are becoming increasingly willing to criticise Swaziland’s regime more openly. The ruling party has resolved to have a “full discussion” on the situation in Swaziland, and a trade union-led campaign to condemn and isolate the Swazi regime is now getting wider support, including from the ANC.

As for the countries that do not have a significant historical, economic or political stake in Swaziland, the tendency is pretty much the same; reaffirming of friendship tempered with mild criticism, although there are few examples of countries that offer some criticism of Swaziland.

Norwegian Ambassador to Swaziland, Tor Christian Hildan, in August 2010 spoke of the two countries always having “been on very friendly terms,” but also of the “growing concern that we observe the difficult situation regarding human rights and freedom of expression.”

The Canadian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Trade says that it “believes that it is important that the Government of Swaziland work to strengthen the rule of law and to establish a constitutional environment that respects human rights and fosters democratic development, in addition to addressing the serious challenges of poverty and disease it is currently facing.”

And the Austrian Foreign Ministry mentions how its relations with Swaziland “have been friendly ever since [independence],” but also mentions “the human rights deficits in Swaziland.”

Most other countries are less critical or non-committal, however. The Danish Foreign Ministry conceded in a meeting with Africa Contact in July 2010, that Swaziland was “not a high priority for the Danish Foreign Ministry” and that any actions related to Swaziland were to be handled at EU-level, although the Danish embassy, also in a meeting with Africa Contact in September 2010, said that they didn’t believe that the EU or Denmark criticising the Swazi regime would make any difference.

The Japanese ambassador in 2009 spoke of the relationship between Japan and Swaziland as being “excellent.” The German Federal Foreign Office speaks of their relations with Swaziland being “traditionally good and friendly.” The French Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs says that “political relations are good but modest.” And the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Indonesia speaks of its relationship with Swaziland being “well established due to the similar perspectives of both parties in several sub-regional, regional and international forums.”

The rest merely warn their citizens against the dangers of visiting impoverished, undemocratic nations such as Swaziland, but do not outline any policy for Swaziland or criticise its human rights record. The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, for instance, merely advises its citizens to “avoid large public gatherings and street demonstrations as they may turn violent.” And the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs only mentions the “tensions between the king / government and opposition groups” and that these “can lead to violence,” but not the cause of the tensions.

Swaziland’s trade relations:

Swaziland’s main trade partner is South Africa. Over 90% of Swaziland’s imports and 60% of its exports are with South Africa.

USA: Exports and imports total 137 mil. US$ (2010)

United Kingdom: 73 mil. US$ (2008)

France: 25 mil. US$ (2007)

Indonesia: 21 mil. US$ (2008)

Japan: 17 mil. US$ (2000)

Canada: 9.4 mil. US$ (2008)

Denmark: 1.7 mil. US$ (2006)

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