Calling for Justice in the Murder of Human Rights Lawyer Thulani Maseko
What we long feared for human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko has happened. On Saturday night, he was murdered — shot dead in front of his family at his home near Mbabane. Reports say he was shot through the windows of his house outside the capital of Eswatini (formerly Swaziland).
Maseko was chair of the Multi-Stakeholder Forum, a group calling for reform in Eswatini, and a founding member of the Southern Africa Defenders Human Rights Network. He was known nationally, regionally, and internationally for his human rights work.
Maseko had taken a case to court against King Mswati III, Africa’s last absolute monarch, over his decision to rename the country Eswatini by decree.
Hours before Maseko was murdered, King Mswati criticized activists pushing for reform, saying, “People should not shed tears and complain about mercenaries killing them.”
A longtime critic of King Mswati, Maseko knew his work was risky. He persisted for many years despite the risks. Less than a year ago, he described his situation as “caught between hope and fear.”
In 2015, I spoke with his wife Tenele at a UN Human Rights Council event in Geneva about the targeting of human rights defenders. At the time, Maseko was in jail, sentenced to two years in prison for criticizing the monarchy.
He wrote to President Obama from prison. Quoting Martin Luther King, Jr., he asked for help from the U.S. government and generated unwelcome international media coverage for King Mswati.
I described him at the time as not being “high-tech or fancy.” He had “not invented new forms of internet activism or exposed government violations on YouTube.” He was “not a fashionable blogger or even a human rights Twitter celebrity,” but “an old-fashioned example of a brave guy paying the price for standing up to a monarchy… a classic human rights defender.”
Condemnation of his killing has been swift. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk has called for a “prompt, independent, impartial and effective investigation is held into his killing.”
But few killers of human rights defenders are brought to justice. International pressure is crucial to pushing the local authorities to find those responsible and bring them to justice. No one understood the limits of Estwatini’s criminal justice system better than Maseko.
In an analysis familiar to human rights lawyers in many countries, he explained last year, “The law is supposed to be a tool to protect the vulnerable of society and to promote the common good. In a situation where the law is used as a tool of oppression, difficult as it may be, we need to find the small spaces and opportunities to advance the rights of the people. And you do so with the hope that you’ll get a judge who will be sympathetic to the cause and to the rights of the oppressed.”
He continued, “From time to time you do score some small victories, depending of course on who is the judge that you are appearing before, but most of the time we do not succeed because of the very setup in our courts, the politics and the way the law is set up. You do have a sense of frustration.”
Maseko’s struggle for small victories resulted in years of harassment, jail, and now his killing.
He must not be failed in death, and those responsible, no matter who or how powerful they are, must be held responsible. The U.S. government must do much more than express condolences, as its embassy in Eswatini did today. It must call for his killers to feel the full force of the law.