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Lesotho makes giant stride towards meeting AGOA, MCC criteria

  • as National Assembly approves Anti-Trafficking bill
  • enactment of bill part of strict criteria for continued US development aid

Ntsebeng Motsoeli

THE National Assembly has passed the Anti-Trafficking (Amendment) Bill of 2020 which seeks to combat human trafficking by imposing lengthy and even life imprisonment on those convicted of the crime.

The approval of the bill, this week, is a giant step towards meeting the United States government’s demands to deal decisively with the scourge of human trafficking as a precondition for continued development aid.

Last month, the US Ambassador to Lesotho, Rebecca Gonzales, told this publication that her government had given Lesotho up to the end of February 2021 to address concerns about human trafficking and other human rights violations or risk losing out on the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) facility which allows it to export goods duty-free to the US.

About 45 000 factory jobs are at risk if Lesotho loses out on AGOA. The textile industry is anchored on the duty-free exports to the US market.

Ms Gonzales also warned that if the concerns are not addressed, Lesotho would also lose out on the multi-million-dollar second compact under the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC).

AGOA gives duty-free and quota-free access to the US market to eligible sub-Saharan African countries including Lesotho. The legislation, which was approved by the US Congress in May 2000, is meant to incentivise African countries to open their economies and build free markets.

It was renewed for another 10 years in June 2015 as the AGOA Extension & Enhancement Act and amended to allow the US to withdraw, suspend or limit benefits if designated AGOA countries do not comply with its eligibility criteria.

The law obligates the American president to designate countries eligible to benefit from the trade facility on an annual basis after undergoing a review process. Among the main eligibility criteria for the facility are a market-based economy, adherence to the rule of law, the implementation of mechanisms to combat corruption and upholding of human rights.

The MCC was established by the US Congress in 2004 as an innovative foreign aid agency to help lead the fight against global poverty by working with selected partner countries to identify requisite areas in need of funding support.

Before qualifying for funding, countries have to meet a number of conditions similar to those of AGOA.

Compacts are large, five-year grants for countries that pass the eligibility criteria. Lesotho received its first five-year MCC compact worth US$362, 5 million (more than M3 billion) in July 2007.

Among others, the $362, 5 million compact funded the construction of the Metolong Dam as well as the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) to mitigate the negative economic impact of poor maternal health, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and other diseases.

In 2015, the MCC stalled in renewing the compact programme over rampant human rights abuses under then Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili’s government.

Lesotho’s eligibility for the second compact was first confirmed by the MCC Board in December 2017 after the ouster of the Mosisili coalition in the June 2017 elections and the advent of former Prime Minister Thomas Thabane’s second coalition government.

However, the Thabane administration, which lasted until May 2020 when it was replaced by the current Moeketsi Majoro-led coalition, was accused of failing to tackle police brutality against citizens and corruption.

The former government was also accused of paying lip service to repeated warnings to address human trafficking concerns.

The US government defines human trafficking as “modern day slavery” which involves the movement of persons locally and beyond a country’s borders against their will to get them into forced labour, involuntary servitude and debt bondage.

Ms Gonzales said that due to its failure to deal with human trafficking, Lesotho had been placed in Tier 3—the lowest tier in the US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report for 2020.

She said, under normal circumstances, a country in Tier 3 on human trafficking like Lesotho would have already lost all development assistance from the US.

However, she said she had recommended a waiver of any punishment against Lesotho to enable Dr Majoro to act on the issue since he had only come to power recently.

She said in the few months until February 2021, the government had a lot to do to get the country off Tier 3 and maintain its eligibility for AGOA and a second MCC compact.

These she said, included passing legislation to combat trafficking as well as ensuring that law enforcement agencies “investigate the many credible allegations of official complicity in human smuggling and human trafficking”.

“The government must take all recommended actions by February 2021.  If not, the restrictions on US foreign assistance will come into force.

“The Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) will not move forward with a new compact while Lesotho is on Tier 3.  I had dearly hoped to see Lesotho sign a much needed second compact this year.  But only governments that adequately protect basic rights are eligible for MCC compacts.

“I am concerned that AGOA eligibility may be threatened if Lesotho doesn’t get off of Tier 3.  AGOA is not exactly a foreign assistance programme but the United States may opt not to give preferential trade access to a country whose government won’t protect basic human rights,” Ms Gonzales said.

Faced with the prospect of losing AGOA, MCC and all forms of US development aid, the National Assembly thus moved to approve the Anti-Trafficking (Amendment) Bill on Tuesday.

The Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act of 2011 prescribes 25 years in prison and/or a M1 million for those found guilty of human trafficking.

It also prescribes life imprisonment when the trafficking victim is a child.

However, the amended bill seeks to abolish the fines and impose prison sentences only.

Home Affairs Minister Motlalentoa Letsosa said his ministry and the parliamentary portfolio committee on law and public safety had proposed to abolish the fines because they were not a deterrent on perpetrators who, in most cases, were wealthy people who could easily afford to pay up.

Mr Letsosa said imposing fines no matter how exorbitant, could be interpreted to mean that the government was accepting illicit money from offenders.

“They (traffickers) have plenty of money. What motivated the decision to repeal the fines was the realisation that it appeared as though the government was generating revenue by accepting money from the perpetrators,” Mr Letsosa said.

He said the proposed amendments were also aimed at redefining some clauses “to give them a more precise interpretation”.

“The bill provides for the definition of trafficking in persons as it appears in the United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children of 2020.

“The Act (Anti-Trafficking in Person Act, 2011) omitted to mention that in the case of child trafficking, it is not necessary to have elements of threat or use of force, coercion, abduction, fraud, deception or abuse of power,” Mr Letsosa said.

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