Understanding the Limits of International Intervention: Lessons Learned from the Eswatini Uprisings

The ongoing political uprisings in Eswatini are being witnessed globally, drawing attention from international media houses and commentary from a variety of experts in the fields of governance, democracy, rule of law, and transitional justice. A significant population of the citizens of Eswatini has outright rejected King Mswati’s rule, and are actively pursuing democratic reforms through protests and revolt against a government that resorts to murderous barbarism when confronted with ever-growing calls for a new system of governance.

Calls for reforms in Eswatini are as old as the 1973 Decree which was an unconstitutional change of government driven by the sinister King Sobhuza II whose legacy has been sanitised by monarchism apologists in Eswatini and elsewhere. What is different about the current agitation for change is the unwavering momentum with which pressure is being exerted on Mswati from citizens in-country and abroad.

This has led to Mswati’s security cluster using deadly force against unarmed protestors, action which has been said amounts to international crimes. In the wake of these killings and suppression of citizens of eSwatini, many were hopeful for foreign intervention – and of course we witnessed the historic peaceful march to deliver a petition to the United States (“US”) Embassy which committed to reviewing the petition with interest.

Many citizens expressed discontent on social media as to why powerful democratic countries such as the US and South Africa would not intervene militarily or otherwise to defend or rescue unarmed civilians from the King’s forces. Moreover, many were incensed by the lacklustre intervention of regional blocs such as Southern African Development Community (“SADC”), the African Union (“AU”), and to a certain extent the European Union (“EU”). Citizens calling for change also marched to the United Nations (“UN”) Office in eSwatini to deliver a petition calling for change, and some citizens wonder why the UN has not done anything despite the sustained calls for democratisation in the face of gross human rights violations and killing of unarmed civilians.

As a point of departure, it is quite important to understand that generally, states support other states particularly as regards the respect for sovereignty and non-interference in domestic affairs. Where national security ends and regional security begins is highly contentious, of course – and states with a dismal human rights record such as Eswatini will invariably hold the view that the suppression of uprisings is a domestic issue with which other states should not interfere. In the interest of diplomatic relations between states, foreign governments will remain silent or issue contrived ambiguous statements in relation to a blatant violation of human rights and international law by another government.

We saw this with the statements made by the US, EU, and Taiwanese embassies when eSwatini government forces murdered the citizens of this country. Even when a US Embassy vehicle was shot at during the bloodiest week in eSwatini’s history, US diplomats and the Eswatini government seemingly addressed this issue over crumpets and tea. Surprisingly (or maybe not), the matter appears to have been dealt with outside of the context of what was happening in the country.

The US Embassy twitter statement reads thus: “We can confirm shots were fired at an embassy vehicle on July 1 and we informed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) of the incident via diplomatic note—a standard form of communication btwn (sic) diplomatic missions & MFA. We are working closely with the MFA to address the incident.” This public statement is bereft of any context because the US is cautious not to take a clear stand as regard the contextual realities within which a US diplomatic vehicle was hit by a live round shot by a member of Eswatini forces in pursuance of the state’s policy to murder unarmed citizens.

A person reading the US statement, with no knowledge of what was happening in Eswatini when the shooting occurred, would assume that this incident happened in time of peace. A similar (but perhaps more serious) incident happened in Mexico during peace time, and the Mexican government is on record apologising to the US government for what was an error in judgement of the security personnel involved, and the officers were detained pending an investigation.

In eSwatini there are reports that the army commander at the time of incident made scandalous remarks effectively saying the vehicle was shot as a matter of course. Despite these facts, the tone of the US response is illustrative of the level of sanctity assigned to relations between states, which often trumps acknowledgement of human rights violations against citizens of a country.

Some states have rationalised non-interference with the argument that any change in a country’s governance system must be led and implemented almost exclusively by the citizens of the state concerned. This view unfortunately ignores the inherently imbalanced relationship between the state and its citizenry. This imbalance was clearly exemplified on more than one occasion when Eswatini forces immediately activated the resources it needed to lead a deadly military campaign enforcing the states policy of terror and murder of citizens expressing discontent with King Mswati’s oppressive rule.

Another factor worth exploring is the role of politics in international relations – and how those politics may be a key deciding factor in (non) intervention. States may hold general views postulated as foreign policy, but in actual fact relationships between two or more states are tailored around politics. For purposes of this discussion, focus is mainly on the approach adopted by the US in relation to blatant murder and suppression of citizens calling for democracy in Eswatini.

As the chief purveyor of democratic values globally, it was not unreasonable for many to expect that the US would take a decisive stand against the manner in which the government responded to protests. So the question remains – why is the US reaction disappointingly ambiguous and vague? It is general knowledge that the US supports Taiwan particularly as regards recognition and participation in international fora such as the World Health Organization and the World Trade Organization. This support is largely fuelled by China-US relations which may be described as less than warm. To illustrate the conflation between support for Taiwan and relations with China consider the following statement by the US Department of State:

“The United States notes with concern the pattern of ongoing PRC attempts to intimidate its neighbors, including Taiwan. We urge Beijing to cease its military, diplomatic, and economic pressure against Taiwan and instead engage in meaningful dialogue with Taiwan’s democratically elected representatives.

We will stand with friends and allies to advance our shared prosperity, security, and values in the Indo-Pacific region — and that includes deepening our ties with democratic Taiwan. The United States will continue to support a peaceful resolution of cross-strait issues, consistent with the wishes and best interests of the people on Taiwan. The United States maintains its longstanding commitments as outlined in the Three Communiqués, the Taiwan Relations Act, and the Six Assurances. We will continue to assist Taiwan in maintaining a sufficient self-defense capability. Our commitment to Taiwan is rock-solid and contributes to the maintenance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and within the region.”

Eswatini is the only remaining African state which continues to resist pressure from Beijing, and still maintains diplomatic relations with Taiwan. This then presents a complex problem for the US because it is an open secret that Taiwan has a personal relationship with the King and his family, not with the state in its capacity as proxy for the citizens of Eswatini. The aid provided by Taiwan is secondary, primarily it is the King who benefits personally from Taiwan. The US is very clear – as is Taiwan – that the King does not hold the democratic values shared by the US and Taiwan.

In fact, the King may well identify better with Beijing’s values as regards constitutionalism, western democracy, and human rights. The relationship between the King and Taiwan is not based on harmonious political ideology, but is purely founded on the King’s personal greed and Taiwan’s ability to satisfy that greed in return for recognition. So the question then arises as to whether the US is choosing its poison in relation to the Eswatini problem. Does agitating China carry more weight than making a decisive intervention to assist the people of Eswatini in their call for democracy?

Put differently, is it that important to the US government for China to be snubbed and for Taiwan to continue enjoying recognition as a sovereign state by Eswatini – notwithstanding that Taiwan is being recognised purely for the satisfaction of a dictator’s greed? The US is on record making direct demands for democratisation in countries under the grip of authoritarianism, especially where the government starts murdering its own citizens. The situation in Eswatini seems to not have inspired the kind of American response that many citizens of Eswatini expected, hence the ubiquitous cry on social media platforms “nobody is coming to save us, we are truly on our own”.

Much to the misfortune of the citizens, the US or any other state does not have a legal obligation to intervene in Eswatini. Intervention is largely an incentive driven decision, and perhaps Eswatini is just not important enough. What is truly unsettling is that King Mswati has tested this theory of non-intervention – and he knows it to be true as a matter of fact. Many Swazis calling for democracy in Eswatini were killed in cold blood under the watchful eye of so-called powerful democratic states, but absolutely nobody has been held accountable.

As regards regional blocs and multilateral organizations, matters get worse. Let us first consider the UN. Since the UN is an international body, many people have mistakenly viewed it as a super-state. The assumption is that the UN can “go to any country” and enforce human rights treaty obligations on Member States – well it cannot, and it has not. Without getting into an academic exercise, it is important that the UN has very limited powers of intervention – especially in security matters which are not a priority for the Security Council.

Dozens upon dozens of atrocities are committed by UN Member States every day, and the organization cannot do much to intervene and stop the killing and oppression of civilians. So then the UN is effective as regards condemning atrocities, noting certain affairs with concern, and of course implementing programs to alleviate the impact of atrocities on civilians – i.e. delivering aid. It is the custodian of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (“UDHR”), but it cannot enforce these rights – except if the permanent members of the Security Council agree to do so.

What also cripples the UN is that it is not separate from its Member States, therefore even at the level of the Security Council politics between permanent members thereof often feature. Pretty much the same can be said of the AU and its so-called security architecture. That is why the AU has failed to maintain peace and security in the Region, its powers of intervention are quite limited. The AU has also been criticised as being a continental political cartel comprising of a brotherhood of dictators, human rights violators, corrupt leaders, and enablers.

Which Head of State in the AU can have good faith engagements with King Mswati’s government about the provisions of the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights? How can the AU itself facilitate such an engagement? What can it do as regards the killing of civilians in eSwatini? What can it do about the political prisoners languishing in this country’s jails? The answer is simply this – nothing of real value. On 25th October 2021, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights issued a press statement in which it communicates that it “is following with grave concern the human rights situation relating to protests calling for reform and the violence involving law enforcement personnel in the Kingdom of eSwatini.”

This is as good as it gets. Enter SADC, a body that does not even deserve an analysis, if this regional bloc had any decency it would dissolve the utterly useless TROIKA organ because it is completely useless. SADC failed in Zimbabwe, Madagascar, Lesotho, Mozambique, and now in Eswatini. SADC is so ineffective that its Tribunal was effectively dissolved by Robert Mugabe because of its rulings against Zimbabwe. So it is quite ambitious to expect any intervention of value from SADC organs. Even the recent visit from Cyril Ramaphosa has not earned SADC any trust from the people of Eswatini, especially because there is no public record indicating that Ramaphosa engaged with any other stakeholders besides the King and his government. So whatever resolutions (to engage in dialogue) reached during the bilateral between Ramaphosa and the King, are on the King’s terms to the exclusion of the people with whom he ought to have dialogue. Thus such dialogue may be doomed to fail before it begins.

Now, the EU is a different kind of beast primarily because its make up is designed to have all the mechanisms necessary for the promotion of democracy and protection of human rights. That is not to say the EU does not get it wrong sometimes, however there clearly is a good faith commitment by EU Member States to uphold the rule of law and continually pursue democratic values. For instance, in 2015 the EU Parliament made an unambiguous call for the “immediate and unconditional release of Thulani Maseko and Bheki Makhubu, given that their imprisonment relates directly to the legitimate exercise of their right to freedom of expression and also of all political prisoners, including Mario Masuku, President of the People’s United Democratic Movement, and Maxwell Dlamini, Secretary-General of the Swaziland Youth Congress.”

Similarly, the EU describes its relations with Eswatini as “cordial, but the EU is critical of the democratisation process within the country. During the regular political dialogues and direct engagements with the King, the EU has called for democratisation and for the implementation of the Constitution, which provides for freedom of association, assembly and expression.”

The commitment and directness of the EU’s intervention in Eswatini is commendable, and we can hope that more can be done by the EU to continue pressuring the government of Eswatini. However, we have seen that in so far as the oppressive government is killing citizens for exercising the constitutional rights – the EU cannot intervene to prevent killings or to hold the government accountable.

So, we have learnt from this experience that interventions have their limitations. It is quite clear to all that international stakeholders would like to see Eswatini implementing democratic reforms, but not much is done by even powerful states when the oppressive regime of Eswatini kills its own people for pursuing the democratic ideals that such states would like to see in Eswatini. If/when there are more peaceful protests in Eswatini and more civilians are killed by government forces, we are more likely to see statements rather than any real intervention. International relations are not nearly as simple as we see in motion pictures – in reality there are many competing interests to consider.

So when the Eswatini government isolates the people by arbitrarily restricting access to the internet and media freedom, all for the purposes of murdering protestors with impunity, international friends of Swaziland are happier as innocent bystanders calling for restraints from all sides. Lesson learned, we are indeed alone – and soon we will have to learn that we are the ones we have been waiting for. 

NB: Sanele has a PhD in International relations. He writes in his personal capacity as part of The Bridge effort to educate and inform on the international dimension of the current political upheavals.