THE board of the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) usually holds its meetings every December to decide which countries are eligible for development assistance in terms of the MCC compact programmes.
It is also the time when other countries which have previously been selected for MCC compact are also considered for re-selection for new compacts.
Lesotho is one such country which has previously benefitted from a multi-billion-maloti MCC compact which enabled it to either build new health infrastructure or upgrade existing infrastructure as well as improve access to clean water for its citizens among other things.
Eligibility for MCC compacts is dependent on Lesotho and other benefitting countries meeting key criteria including upholding human rights, the rule of law and other democratic principles.
For Lesotho specifically, new areas of concern have been raised as threats to the country’s eligibility for a second MCC compact.
Apart from the traditional concerns about the respect for the rule of law, addressing police brutality and implementing the long-delayed multi-sector reforms, the US government has expressed concern about Lesotho’s apparent failure to deal with the scourge of human trafficking. Over a month ago, the US Ambassador to Lesotho, Rebecca Gonzales, warned that unless addressed urgently, Lesotho could lose on the second compact.
This week, Lesotho Times (LT) editor, Herbert Moyo, engaged Ambassador Gonzales to find out how the US government feels the Moeketsi Majoro administration has fared since the concerns about the likely impediments for the country’s reselection for a second MCC compact were raised.
Ambassador Gonzales also shared her thoughts on the Lesotho Communications Authority (LCA)’s proposed laws to regulate the internet which have been described by many as an attempt to curtail free speech. Below are excerpts of the interview.
LT: Your Excellency, please explain why trafficking in persons is important to the United States?
Ambassador Gonzales: Human trafficking is modern day slavery. Involuntary servitude, debt bondage, forced labour—all of these are terms for the same thing.
Lesotho’s previous government took essentially no action to prevent Trafficking in Persons (TIP), protect victims or prosecute perpetrators. Due to this lack of action, Lesotho was moved down to Tier 3 on the State Department’s TIP Report.
The US Congress has passed laws restricting US development assistance to countries on Tier 3. US taxpayers are unwilling to support governments that do not act against modern day slavery.
LT: Does this mean that the United States will be ending development assistance to Lesotho?
Ambassador Gonzales: Normally, countries on Tier 3 are ineligible for most US foreign assistance. However, President Donald J. Trump has approved my request for a waiver for Lesotho this year.
We wanted to give Prime Minister Moeketsi Majoro time to move on TIP. Prime Minister Majoro has repaid the trust of the United States—some of the first bills this government introduced to parliament was to strengthen protection of TIP victims and better empower the law to punish perpetrators.
I therefore congratulate the Prime Minister and his Cabinet, especially the Minister of Law and Justice Professor Nqosa Mahao, who presented the draft laws to parliament. I found this very encouraging.
LT: With the waiver being approved by President Trump for Lesotho, what will happen next?
Ambassador Gonzales: Here is the most important message I want to deliver: President Trump’s waiver is temporary. For this government to get Lesotho off Tier 3, the United States is looking to see concrete action in three domains before the set deadline of February 2021.
First, parliament needs to pass the newly introduced bills. In my opinion, this should be easily accomplished. I am pleased and encouraged by recent public statements by several party leaders from both opposition and government. The parties are clearly united on the importance of passing this legislation. Given the multi-party support, I am confident that these new laws will pass with near universal support in parliament.
Second, I look forward to seeing the progress of the cabinet sub-committee headed by the Honourable Minister of Home Affairs, Motlalentoa Letsosa. I speak regularly with Minister Letsosa and I know he appreciates that he has a central role to play in preventing TIP, protecting victims, and supporting the prosecution of perpetrators.
Thirdly, it is absolutely imperative that Lesotho’s law enforcement agencies investigate the many credible allegations of official complicity in human smuggling and human trafficking.
If investigations uncover evidence that incriminates any person or persons, then prosecution must be pursued to the fullest extent of the law. There must be accountability for such heinous crimes.
Official complicity in TIP is the worst form of corruption—using one’s high office to profit from the buying and selling of humans is outright appalling.
LT: Will this be enough to get Lesotho off TIP Tier 3?
Ambassador Gonzales: If by February 2021 Lesotho takes all of these actions, up to and including the investigation of credible allegations of official complicity in human trafficking, then I think there is a good chance the country will move off Tier 3.
LT: What happens if this waiver is misinterpreted as leniency and no credible progress is made by the Lesotho government come February 2021?
Ambassador Gonzales: It is worth emphasising that the waiver is not permanent. The government must take all recommended actions by February 2021. If not, the restrictions on US foreign assistance will come into force.
LT: So, will all US assistance programmes move forward unimpeded for another year?
Ambassador Gonzales: The waiver protects PEPFAR and most other assistance the United States provides to the people of Lesotho.
However, 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.
Finally, I am concerned that AGOA eligibility may be threatened if Lesotho doesn’t get off 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.
LT: As a development partner of Lesotho who has consistently emphasised the upholding of individual freedoms and liberties in line with democratic ideals, what is the USA government’s view of moves by Lesotho to regulate the internet?
Ambassador Gonzales: The United States government is a member to the Freedom Online Coalition (FOC) which is a group of 31 countries deeply committed to the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).
We believe that the human rights and fundamental freedoms that individuals have offline must also be protected online. We are committed to working together to support internet freedom for individuals worldwide — including the freedoms of expression, association, peaceful assembly, as well as privacy rights online.
LT: Do you foresee any such regulation affecting the enjoyment of such freedoms by the nation?
Ambassador Gonzales: As the United States government, we see civic space online as integral to a vibrant civic space offline. Moves to hinder activities on the internet often undermine human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the rights of peaceful assembly and freedoms of association and expression that form the basis of a democratic society. Heavily regulating the Internet impacts all users, especially marginalised groups and those in vulnerable situations.
They also limit media freedom and the ability of journalists and human rights defenders to report on human rights violations or abuses and hold governments accountable. Restrictions also limit the dissemination and free flow of information, harm economic activity, contribute to social and political disorder and negatively affect public safety.
LT: But the LCA contends that the policing of the internet is necessary to curb its abuse. Do you agree?
Ambassador Gonzales: Lack of accountability and lack of effective remedy for violations and abuses of human rights online pose a risk of reduced trust in public authorities, which, in turn, might undermine the effectiveness of any future public response. Violations and abuses of human rights also increase risk of discrimination and may disproportionately harm members of already marginalised and vulnerable communities, including women and girls and other individuals who may face multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination. Human rights violations and abuses online are a direct challenge to the goal of protecting and promoting both the exercise of human rights online and an open, free, secure, reliable and interoperable internet.
LT: In your view, is the LCA going about the issue in the best possible way to curb abuse of the internet?
Ambassador Gonzales: Any interference with privacy and other relevant rights and freedoms need also be consistent with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the UDHR (Universal Declaration of Human Rights). This is true whether the restrictions apply to activity online or offline. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo noted during this year’s commemoration of World Press Freedom Day, “This year, as the world faces the COVID-19 pandemic, it is particularly important that both professional and citizen journalists be free to report what they see and hear, and to express their opinions openly. Our independent media facilitate the exchange of life-saving information, spend countless hours chasing facts and verifying their accuracy, and do their best to ask tough questions designed to hold accountable both public officials and the experts on whom they rely. Transparency ensures both reasoned decision-making and official accountability.