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So much at stake if Lesotho fails to address human trafficking concerns: US

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FOR decades, Lesotho has benefitted from various forms of development assistance from the United States (US) government.

Apart from funding to combat HIV and AIDS and other health programmes, Lesotho has also received multi-million-dollar funding under the US’ Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC).

The first MCC compact in 2007 enabled Lesotho to build new health infrastructure, upgrade existing infrastructure as well as improve access to clean water for its citizens among other things.

Lesotho has also benefited from the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) facility which allows it to export goods duty-free to the US.

Eligibility for AGOA, MCC compacts and all other forms of development assistance 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, the newest threat to its eligibility for development assistance is its apparent failure to deal with the scourge of human trafficking. The issue was first raised in September 2020 by the US Ambassador to Lesotho, Rebecca Gonzales, in an interview with this publication.

She warned at the time that unless addressed by February 2021, the human trafficking issue would result in Lesotho losing out on the second compact, AGOA and other development assistance.

With the February 2021 deadline fast approaching, the Lesotho Times (LT) editor, Herbert Moyo, this week engaged Ambassador Gonzales to find out how the US government feels the Moeketsi Majoro administration has fared since the concerns were raised.

Below are excerpts of the interview.

LT: Your Excellency, Lesotho is fast approaching the February 2021 deadline set by the United States to have achieved several concrete actions to combat human trafficking. Where does Lesotho stand today as far as you are concerned?  

Ambassador Gonzales:  Let me be extremely frank: Lesotho’s future is at stake.  For three years, I directly engaged with my counterparts at the highest level of the Thabane government (including ministers).

For three years, the Thabane government did not make significant progress preventing the trafficking in persons (TIP), protecting victims, or prosecuting perpetrators.

Due to the lack of action by the Thabane government, Lesotho was downgraded to Tier 3 in early 2020 and remains at risk of losing future US development assistance.

US taxpayers are unwilling to support governments that do not act against human trafficking.  That is why the US Congress passed laws restricting US development assistance to countries on Tier 3.

The Kingdom of Lesotho must demonstrate that it can adequately protect fundamental human rights to maintain its eligibility for an additional Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) compact.  Lesotho’s first MCC compact was a tremendous success, securing US$384 million to increase economic growth and reduce poverty by improving water supply, increasing access to essential health services, and removing barriers to private sector investment.  I am disheartened Lesotho’s journey to the second MCC compact has been derailed by such significant challenges that could have been addressed years priors.

Beyond MCC, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and most other assistance the United States provides to Lesotho will be under review if the government cannot get off Tier 3.  These are health programmes that reach Basotho every day and which have led to the great strides we have made in our joint efforts to combat the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Lesotho.

The African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) is a trade benefit programme, but the United States may opt not to continue to grant preferential trade access to a country whose government doesn’t protect internationally recognized worker rights, including protecting victims of forced labour or trafficking.

Presently, AGOA is estimated to support 45 000 jobs in Lesotho and the families dependent on those jobs hang in the balance if significant action is not taken to protect Lesotho’s continued eligibility.

Finally, if Lesotho remains on Tier 3, vital security sector assistance programmes such as police and military trainings and exchanges could end.

LT: Would you say that the Majoro administration has made any tangible efforts to address human trafficking in Lesotho? 

Ambassador Gonzales:  Last year, I secured a one-time waiver for Lesotho from the President of the United States.  I wanted to avoid any reduction to US assistance so that the Right Honorable Prime Minister Dr Moeketsi Majoro and his administration would have time to show progress combatting human trafficking and address other critical issues.

It is worth emphasising that the waiver Lesotho received is not permanent. The government must take action by 1 February 2021.  If not, the restrictions on US foreign assistance will come into force.

In his end of year address, Prime Minister Majoro pointed to several government actions, such as setting up government subcommittees, creating an Anti-trafficking and Migrants’ Control Division at the Lesotho Mounted Police Service, and executing Trafficking in Persons awareness campaigns.

While we are encouraged by these actions, the United States is still looking to see sustained action to enforce legislation and bolster efforts to implement new initiatives to address the issues of human trafficking in Lesotho.  I want to emphasize that this is not a recent issue, and officials found complicit in any form of human trafficking must be held accountable.

LT: From where we are today, what types of actions will get Lesotho off TIP Tier 3?

Ambassador Gonzales:  It was encouraging to see Prime Minister Majoro and his cabinet introduce legislation to strengthen protections for victims of trafficking and better empower law enforcement officials to punish traffickers.  This is landmark progress and a first for Lesotho.

Last year, all Lesotho’s party leaders united on the importance of passing this legislation and I congratulate them for that.  Now, I strongly urge the government to ensure these new anti-trafficking laws are faithfully executed.

Beyond the new legislation, Lesotho’s law enforcement agencies must continue their investigations into credible allegations of official complicity in human smuggling and human trafficking.

Let me emphasize the importance of the word “credible.”  In the last few weeks, there have been many public accusations and counter accusations of involvement in trafficking.  Some are likely true; others may be false.

I urge the innocent to cooperate fully with law enforcement so that they can be exonerated.  And I urge Lesotho’s law enforcement to spare no effort to identify the guilty so that they can be punished to the full extent of the law.  Official complicity in human trafficking is the worst form of corruption — using one’s high office to profit from buying and selling humans is outright appalling.

There is time for Lesotho to meet the February 1 deadline.  If the government takes all these actions, up to and including making substantive progress in its investigations of credible allegations of official complicity in human trafficking then perhaps the country may see an upgrade from Tier 3.

LT: If the Kingdom of Lesotho fails to meet the 1 February 2021 deadline, what will happen next?  What does the future look like for relations between the United States and the Majoro administration? 

Ambassador Gonzales:  The friendship between the United States and Lesotho is enduring.  We are your longest standing partner, and our relationship has spanned 55 years. We’ve maintained an Embassy in Lesotho since the British flag was lowered and the Lesotho flag raised in its place.  We are friends, and we will remain so.

Taking serious steps to address human trafficking is not for the United States or the US-Lesotho relationship; it is for Lesotho’s own credibility and standing in the world.

Failure to make progress will affect the assistance the United States can provide.  The government must take adequate action…  US law is very clear on this point—all forms of foreign assistance will be under review.

I suspect that some of our health assistance would be allowed to continue, although there may be cuts.  This deeply troubles me, as it should all Basotho, given our great efforts to reach and sustain HIV/AIDS epidemic control.  The non-health assistance we provide to support good governance, electricity provision, and other programmes will also likely be cut.

And I have spoken at length with the leadership of the MCC.  They are adamant that a second compact will not be signed until the government of Lesotho gets off Tier 3. MCC has some amazing proposals for a second investment in Lesotho—they are eager to make progress on a second compact.

But it is absolutely not going to happen in 2021 unless the government gets off Tier 3 and pursues the credible investigation of officials who are believed to be complicit in human trafficking over the past several years.

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