Over the weekend, the United States Ambassador to Lesotho, Rebecca Gonzales, announced that Lesotho had been upgraded to the Tier 2 Watch List on the US State Department’s human trafficking index report for 2021 in recognition of the “positive” steps taken by the Moeketsi Majoro administration to meet eligibility criteria for development assistance.
Lesotho moved up from Tier 3, the lowest ranking. Ordinarily countries in Tier 3 automatically lose US developments assistance and cannot benefit from multi-million-dollar programmes like the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC).
Unsurprisingly, the decision to upgrade Lesotho to the Tier 2 Watch List was welcomed by several politicians including Dr Majoro who tweeted: “the US upgraded #Lesotho from Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Tier III to Tier II.
“This means AGOA is safe and that Lesotho may sign MCC Compact by end 2021. Congratulations to the cabinet committee and the Lesotho Mounted Police Service (LMPS) that worked very hard on trafficking in persons. Lots of work still remains, though,” Dr Majoro said.
This week, the Lesotho Times (LT) editor Herbert Moyo engaged Ambassador Gonzales to find out more on the implications of the upgrading of Lesotho to the Tier 2 Watch List. In the interview below, Ambassador Gonzales, makes it clear that while the government has taken some “significant steps” to address human trafficking concerns, more needs to be done before a lucrative second MCC compact can be agreed. In addition, Lesotho must expedite the implementation of the multi-sector reforms recommended by SADC, Ambassador Gonzales adds.
LT: The country’s politicians have been congratulating themselves over the upgrading of Lesotho to the Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report’s Tier 2 Watch List. Prime Minister Moeketsi Majoro has even gone as far as publicly stating that a Second MCC Compact will be signed before year-end. How feasible/ how likely is this given that Lesotho hasn’t even attained Tier 2 and there’s so many it still has to grapple with under the Tier 2 Watch List where it has been placed in the latest TIP report?
Ambassador Gonzales: The decision to move forward to a second compact rests solely with the Millennium Challenge Corporation’s (MCC) Board of Directors. The MCC Board made it clear last year that there would be no compact signed if Lesotho remained on Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report Tier 3. Lesotho’s progress combating trafficking in persons is real, and I congratulate the Right Honorable Prime Minister and his cabinet, particularly the Honorable Minister of Home Affairs, for what they have accomplished thus far. But as I have always said, strengthening Lesotho’s efforts to combat TIP was a necessary step toward approval of a second compact—but not a sufficient step in and of itself. MCC is encouraged by Lesotho’s upgrade to the Tier 2 Watch List, but the MCC Board will also be considering the government’s commitment to protecting basic human rights, adhering to good governance and the rule of law, combating corruption, making progress on the SADC-sponsored reforms agenda, and maintaining the investment made under the first compact, particularly the country’s health centers. The Board will also be interested in steps the government takes to support the objectives of the forthcoming compact, such as passage of the Harmonization Bill.
I also want to take this opportunity to clarify something. Thanks to the efforts of the government, Lesotho was upgraded from Tier 3 – but not all the way to Tier 2. The country remains on Tier 2 Watch List. That means that the State Department recognised the efforts undertaken by the Government of Lesotho over the last year. But it does not mean that the government can rest. To the contrary—being on Tier 2 Watch List means that Lesotho can fall back to Tier 3 if this progress is not sustained. Because as we know, being on Tier 3 has serious implications for Lesotho’s future, development, and our bilateral relationship.
LT: In your view what is the earliest/most realistic time by which a second MCC compact can be signed?
Ambassador Gonzales: Lesotho’s upgrade from Tier 3 is an essential step towards a compact programme. MCC has continued its work with the Lesotho Millennium Development Agency (LMDA) on compact development. Feasibility studies are ongoing and expected to be completed this year on projects to further strengthen the country’s health systems and catalyze economic growth through irrigation and commercial horticulture investments.
When the compact programme is ready for approval, the MCC Board of Directors will consider, among the other issues mentioned, whether the Government of Lesotho has demonstrated a commitment to maintaining the investments of the first MCC-Lesotho Compact; and whether the compact development process was successful and timely before making its decision to approve. We are hopeful that we can complete compact development this year and ready the compact for Board approval and signature in the coming months.
LT: Countries on the Tier 2 Watch List are those whose governments do not fully meet the TVPA’s minimum standards. They are countries where the estimated number of victims of severe forms of trafficking is very significant or is significantly increasing and the country is not taking proportional concrete actions. Which are the severe forms of trafficking?
Ambassador Gonzales: The Trafficking Victims Protection Act defines “severe forms of trafficking in persons” as (a) sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age; or (b) the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.
LT: In the case of Lesotho, do you have evidence that the estimated number of victims of severe forms of trafficking is very significant or is significantly increasing and the country is not taking proportional concrete actions?
Ambassador Gonzales: There is substantial evidence that Basotho are being recruited under false pretenses to work in other countries, particularly South Africa, and that many are being subjected to serious abuses by unscrupulous employers. The Government of Lesotho needs to continue to improve its efforts to prevent these abusive practices, punish traffickers and all officials and who have profited from cooperating with traffickers, and fund protective services for victims.
Moreover, ongoing investigations targeting officials who served under the previous Thabane administration and who are credibly alleged to have been involved in trafficking schemes to exploit persons from third countries through Lesotho and into South Africa must continue.
LT: Lesotho has been on Tier 3 and in danger of losing out on crucial development assistance. What specifically did it do to get off Tier 3 and get into the Tier 2 Watch List?
Ambassador Gonzales: The Government of Lesotho did not fully meet the minimum standards but made significant efforts to do so. It made key achievements during the reporting period; therefore, it was upgraded to Tier 2 Watch List. As noted in this year’s report, the government convicted its first trafficker in four years and sentenced him to a term of imprisonment. In addition, the government also began investigating multiple government officials for alleged complicity in human trafficking. Moreover, the government enacted a new anti-trafficking law that closed key legislative gaps, including criminalizing all forms of sex trafficking, prescribing penalties that are commensurate with the penalties for other serious crimes, and for the first time provided funding for victim protection services.
Despite these achievements, law enforcement efforts remained very low compared to the scale of the problem—including investigations into allegedly complicit officials—and for the fifth consecutive year, the government did not finalize procedures to identify and refer trafficking victims to care.
LT: What exactly, does Lesotho have to do to get to Tier 1?
Ambassador Gonzales: I appreciate this question; I truly believe it’s possible for Lesotho to get to Tier 1. I continue to strongly encourage the Government of Lesotho to take the actions I outlined above—and I encourage the people of Lesotho to maintain pressure on elected and appointed officials to act.
LT: You have previously said there are credible allegations of official complicity (including by individuals in government) in human trafficking which you say must be investigated and the culprits punished if found guilty. Could this be in reference to widespread allegations that officials of the ruling Democratic Congress (DC) party have been involved in human trafficking activities alongside some Pakistanis?
Ambassador Gonzales: The US Embassy normally does not comment publicly on matters related to law enforcement and ongoing criminal investigations or prosecutions. However, the rumours you mention have swirled for some time in Lesotho’s public sphere. And unfortunately, through speculation and innuendo these rumours have become linked in the minds of many to the concerns of the United States with regards to trafficking in persons. So, I’m going to speak more plainly than I normally would: All that I or any other official of the United States government knows about the accusations leveled against Deputy Prime Minister Mathibeli Mokhothu or Home Affairs Minister Motlalentoa Letsosa is what has been published in Lesotho’s press. As far as I can tell, these accusations were made by disgruntled former members of the Ministry of Home Affairs after they were removed from their positions. Personally, I’m not sure how much credibility to assign to them. That said, if there’s any real evidence against any person then I strongly urge that it be presented to the police so that they can investigate. I also urge those accused to cooperate with any investigation.
LT: The politicians make it seem as though a second MCC compact is solely predicated on addressing human trafficking concerns. But in our last interview, you pointed out the need to address long-standing human rights concerns as well and these include addressing police brutality, ending impunity by security agencies and implementing the multi-sector reforms that were recommended by SADC in 2016. Please clear the air: have you dropped all these criteria and is it true that all that is required to sign a second MCC compact and maintain AGOA eligibility is addressing human trafficking concerns?
Ambassador Gonzales: Addressing human trafficking was a necessary condition to move forward on a second MCC compact, but not a sufficient one. Both MCC compact development and AGOA eligibility are conditioned on a matrix of requirements, including but not limited to addressing human trafficking. The MCC Board continues to monitor the items we discussed in our last interview, including the government’s commitment to protecting basic human rights, adhering to good governance and the rule of law, combating corruption, making progress on the SADC-sponsored reforms agenda, and maintaining the investments made under the first compact, particularly the country’s health centers.
LT: What is your take on the reforms process? Do you think Lesotho is moving fast enough to have implemented the reforms by the new September 2021 deadline given by SADC?
Ambassador Gonzales: I am deeply concerned. As elections draw nearer and focus shifts to political campaigns, missing yet another deadline would not just be disappointing to the United States but to Basotho people from all walks of life who enthusiastically participated in the process hoping to witness their views transformed into meaningful laws aimed at ending the perpetual cycle of political instability. I urge all Basotho, but especially those entrusted by voters with the leadership of this country, to redouble their efforts on the reforms process.
LT: There is the raging debate around the National Peace and Unity Bill which seeks to establish a National Peace and Unity Commission with powers to grant high-profile criminal suspects like politicians Mothetjoa Metsing and Selibe Mochoboroane amnesty provided they testify truthfully, disclose their alleged crimes in full and show remorse. Should this Bill be approved, all court cases currently being prosecuted will be stopped and handed over to the proposed Commission which can pardon suspects. What are your views on this particularly as victims and others have said this is all being done to protect politicians and their allies from punishment for their crimes? Is this a subversion and denial of justice as some would say?
Ambassador Gonzales: I defer to the will of the Basotho people on how they want to address questions of justice, peace, and accountability in their country. Accountability is important—there can be no justice, no peace, and no unity, without true accountability. With regards to the proposed “Peace and Unity” Commission, it seems that the Basotho are utterly divided on it—some are strongly in favour, some are adamantly opposed. So, it’s not clear to me what the will of the Basotho people is, and I think more work needs to be done. One group cannot impose “unity” on another and expect that peace will be the result.
Moreover, the idea that “peace and unity” can be achieved through a bill passed by a bare majority in a divided parliament seems implausible to me. I do support the proposal for the NRA to convene a forum in which all Basotho—not simply politicians who may stand to personally benefit—have the opportunity to debate and decide what they think will provide a true path to peace, unity, and accountability. I also see no reason to suspend trials while this debate happens. To the contrary, I call on the Director of Public Prosecutions to move forward with all deliberate speed. Many of these cases have languished for years, and that is utterly unacceptable. Justice must be served because no one is above the law.
LT: It has also been proposed that victims of human rights atrocities will be compensated by the state and not by the perpetrators themselves. What is your take on this?
Ambassador Gonzales: I refer you to my answer above.
LT: The US has worked with the security agencies, specifically the Lesotho Defence Force (LDF). Do you think the LDF is better/more professional for this? What in your view should be incorporated into the envisaged security sector reforms?
Ambassador Gonzales: One of the greatest challenges Lesotho has faced over the decades since its independence is the recurring involvement of its security services in the country’s politics, often with bloody results. Lesotho’s security services must be professional, apolitical, and subject to civilian control. I think that the events of early last year indicate that at least some of the security services’ leaders understand this. I hope that those in the ranks understand it as well.
The United States will continue working to support reform of Lesotho’s army, police, and other security agencies. These services are there to serve and protect the people. They must stay out of politics, respect the public, and refuse unlawful orders, wherever they originate. And that leads me to my final point. Although I think the leaders of the security services, having learned from the horrors their predecessors unleashed on Lesotho and are trying to keep away from politics, I’m concerned that some of Lesotho’s political leaders are still struggling with that lesson.