US Ambassador Gonzales speaks out

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  • says not enough has been done to ensure MCC, AGOA eligibility,
  • calls for probe into trafficking allegations against Thabane govt officials

Herbert Moyo

LESOTHO has not done enough to address long-standing human trafficking concerns which must be fully dealt with before the country can secure the lucrative multi-million-dollar second compact agreement under the United States (US) government’s Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC).

This was said by the US ambassador to Lesotho, Rebecca Gonzales, in an interview with the Lesotho Times yesterday.

Ms Gonzales acknowledged that the Lesotho government had made some “significant” steps over the past year including the passing the Anti-Trafficking (Amendment) Act last November to combat human trafficking by imposing lengthy and even life imprisonment on those convicted of the crime.

She however, said the government needs to do more including expediting investigations against officials of former Prime Minister Thomas Thabane’s government suspected of involvement in the trafficking of persons.

Ms Gonzales’ remarks follow the US government’s weekend decision to upgrade Lesotho to the Tier 2 Watch List on the US State Department’s human trafficking index report for 2021. This 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 MCC.

However, the US government last year exempted Lesotho from being punished. This was done to give Dr Majoro’s then newly-formed government the chance to rectify the failings of the previous Thomas Thabane administration which it succeeded in May 2020.

The decision to upgrade Lesotho to the Tier 2 Watch List was welcomed by Dr Majoro who over the weekend 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.

However, as pointed out by noted by Ms Gonzales this week, the upgrading will not immediately translate into millions of dollars for Lesotho’s social investment projects under a second MCC compact.

She said a final agreement for a lucrative second compact hinges on the government addressing various issues raised by the US government and the MCC board. These include dealing decisively with the scourge of human trafficking and other human rights abuses, implementing Southern African Development Community (SADC) recommended multi-sector reforms and fighting corruption.

In her weekend statement commemorating the US’ 245th independence anniversary, Ms Gonzales had said Lesotho had congratulated Lesotho for moving up to the Tier 2 Watch List.

“I congratulate you — Ke lebohela Lesotho le Basotho, (thank you Lesotho) as your upgrade from Tier 3 to Tier 2 watchlist in this year’s Trafficking in Persons report,” Ms Gonzales said.

“This indicates a positive development. The Tier 2 watchlist upgraded ranking indicates that the US Department of State recognises that Lesotho is working to comply with the minimum standards to combat human trafficking more fully.  We know there is more work to be done, but we are encouraged by the progress we have seen.

“However, Lesotho will have to step up its efforts over the next year — most importantly, investigations into credible allegations of official complicity in human smuggling and human trafficking, to remain eligible for future US development assistance, such as the country’s second MCC compact, which is necessary to increase economic growth, reduce poverty, and create sustainable opportunities for Basotho. This is critically important, not only for the US-Lesotho relationship; but for Lesotho’s own credibility and standing in the world.

“I will continue to strongly urge the government to ensure the country’s anti-trafficking laws are faithfully executed.  Lesotho’s future is at stake.  Justice must be served because no one is above the law,” Ms Gonzales added.

This week, she reiterated that more needed to be done before a second MCC compact could be signed.

“The Government of Lesotho did not fully meet the minimum standards but made significant efforts to do so.  As noted in this year’s report, the government began investigating multiple government officials for alleged complicity in human trafficking,” Ms Gonzales said.

“Moreover, the government enacted a new anti-trafficking law that closed key legislative gaps, including criminalising 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.

“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,” Ms Gonzales said.

She said while combatting trafficking was a necessary step towards the approval of a second compact, it was not sufficient “in and of itself”.

“The 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 centres,” she said.

The MCC is a multilateral American foreign aid agency established by the US Congress in 2004, with beneficiary countries expected to meet certain conditions with regards to good governance and respect for the rule of law to qualify.

In 2007, MCC and Lesotho signed the first US$362, 6 million (more than M3 billion) compact to reduce poverty and spur economic growth.

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

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

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

The former government also dragged its feet on the multi-sector reforms process. It even missed the May 2019 deadline set by SADC for the full implementation of the constitutional and security sector reforms. All of these issues were part of the eligibility criteria for the second MCC compact.

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