Zambia’s Human Rights Project is Political

by | Mar 13, 2023

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About Marisa Lourenço and Mwai Daka

Marisa Lourenço is a political analyst in Johannesburg, South Africa. She currently works an independent risk consultant advising organisations operating in the southern Africa subregion. Mwai Daka is a PhD student at the University of Gloucestershire in the department of Politics and International Relations. He is also a former Regional Correspondent for OxHRH and is currently an Associate Editor for Democracy in Africa.

Zambia’s death penalty can be traced back to the colonial era, with the administration led by former president Frederick Chiluba (1991-2002) being the last post-independence government to sign an execution order in 1997. New convictions carrying the sentence of capital punishment appeared at odds with the nation’s commitment to the sanctity of life, even if its Constitution made provision for its use. In October 2022, Cabinet announced it had approved the much-needed review of the penal and criminal procedure codes, which would pave the way to repeal the death penalty. Two months later, President Hakainde Hichilema signed the Penal Code (Amendment) Bill number 25 into law, banning capital punishment. Human rights organisations across the globe lauded the move.

In May 2022 Hichilema had indicated  a repeal of the colonial era law was on the cards, stating his government would take the step as a mark of standing against human torture. Three crimes punishable by death included: treason, murder and aggravated robbery. The law made it mandatory for the death penalty to be imposed for these crimes regardless of the circumstances under which the offence was committed.

Broad analysis of the application of the death penalty across the world has found that the citizens most likely to be sentenced to death are those who are economically disadvantaged. More than half of Zambians are classified as living in poverty, and most of this economic group resides in rural areas, far from lawyers operating almost exclusively in the country’s major urban centres. Consequently, they have little to no ability to hiring a lawyer to launch an appeal, with significant implications for access to justice.

In repealing the death penalty, the government demonstrates its recognition that the right to legal recourse is not easily fulfilled within this context. This reaffirms the government’s respect for the rights of all citizens. That it was accompanied by the repeal of Section 69 of the Penal Code, which since 1965 had made criticism of the president a punishable offence, underlines this wider commitment to the human rights project in Zambia.

There is also a political aim to this. The decision to abolish the death penalty demonstrates the government’s desire to bring national legislation in line with global practices and reaffirm Zambia’s position on the global stage as a model democracy in Africa. The relevant international standards are the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights of 1966 (ICCPR) and Second Optional Protocol of 1989. Zambia had ratified the former but not the latter, which provides for the abolition of the death penalty. Therefore, the move marks a shift in government attitudes towards human rights – and is likely inspired by the effort to foster closer ties with Western governments, most of which are signatories to these international instruments.

Positive ties with the West are a known political objective of the Hichilema administration. Since taking office in September 2017, the president has worked towards re-establishing close ties with the West, which had soured during his predecessor Edgar Lungu’s time in office (2015-21) amid increased Chinese involvement in the economy and the recalling of a US ambassador over opposing views on homosexuality. To truly foster better relations with the West, it is not always enough to make the investment environment more open and market friendly for foreign players. Presidents must accompany these changes with a series of actions that show not only there are new laws in place, but that there has been a shift in thinking. As such, Hichilema’s administration promises positive changes both within and beyond Zambia’s legal-political arena.

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