Remarks by Chargé d’Affaires a.i. David Young
Human Rights Day
U.S. Embassy Lusaka
December 10, 2020
(as prepared for delivery)
Today, December 10, is Human Rights Day, which is observed all around the world. Today we celebrate the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is the foundational document that states that all persons everywhere have fundamental rights to human dignity regardless of their race, gender, religion, or any other aspect of their humanity. The Universal Declaration has been signed by virtually every country in the world, including the United States and Zambia. Thus, Americans and Zambians share a common heritage in the community of democracies, committed to fundamental human freedoms.
For democracies to be strong, they need strong institutions, including strong electoral systems, legislative checks and balances, judicial independence, nonpartisan police and security forces, guaranteed freedoms for the press, and a level playing field for the opposition. As we near the beginning of 2021, we look forward to August’s Presidential election in Zambia. It promises to be a hotly contested election, with vigorous campaigning and heated debate. We currently are in the very important voter registration exercise, and as it continues in the coming days, we urge that all citizens be given the time they need to register to vote.
There are three core human rights that are especially important for Zambia’s election next year: freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, and freedom from violence and intimidation.
First is freedom of assembly. For a democracy to be healthy, people need the freedom to gather peacefully in groups – so they can meet, discuss, debate and celebrate whatever they think is important. This is a foundation of democracy.
Today in Zambia the Public Order Act has been used to limit the right of freedom of assembly — through restrictions on the ability of opposition groups and civil society to gather. As it is written, the Public Order Act only requires group to notify the police of upcoming meetings in public spaces, not to seek permission. This is a very important distinction.
But what we have seen over the years in Zambia is that the Public Order Act has been used as a barrier and impediment to free public gatherings. There are exceptions written into the Public Order Act that allow government officials to gather without notification requirements. But opposition groups are required to give notice for their proposed gatherings, and many times they are told they cannot meet – for a variety of reasons that are not in keeping with the spirit of the law itself and certainly not internationally required human rights that Zambia has agreed to guarantee for its citizens.
My hope is that all peaceful groups – whether government, opposition, civil society or religious organizations – will be able to gather this election season without being restricted by a misinterpretation of the Public Order Act.
A second key issue for Zambia is freedom of the press. A free and active media is essential to political debate and the exchange of ideas leading up to an election. If you cannot make fair comment and criticism during a campaign, what kind of a campaign is it really?
A democracy without press freedom is like a vehicle without wheels. When truly free, the press functions like a mirror that strives to show us truths about society. Closing independent media houses greatly harms Zambia’s democracy. Citizens don’t have the benefit of a robust public debate in the media. And it is often the media that asks politicians the hard questions about important issues – and then writes and broadcasts stories about those important issues. Those in public life should not shrink from criticism or respectful debate, even when it is tough. That is the essential bed rock of democracy and human freedom.
A third core issue for Zambia is freedom from violence and intimidation. And here I want to talk about cadre violence. Elections that are free, fair, transparent, and importantly, peaceful, are the foundation of any democracy. As we look towards the 2021 general election, all Zambians must be able to exercise their democratic rights with the guarantee that their safety and dignity will be respected. There is absolutely no excuse for members of any party to attack or intimidate those with whom they disagree. Several parties deploy violent cadres, but in recent months we have seen numerous instances when opposition parties and candidates have been attacked and intimidated. Candidates for office should not fear for their safety, just because they disagree with their political opponents.
I am confident that my friends in Zambia – including those in government, opposition, civil society, religious communities and traditional leaders – will continue to work to promote human rights and democracy in this wonderful country. Because all of us deserve to fully enjoy the freedom of assembly, the freedom of expression, and freedom from fear. These rights are the birthright of all people around the world, and we at the U.S. Embassy look forward to continue working together as partners and friends to make our world more just, peaceful and prosperous. The United States and Zambia stand arm in arm as democracies committed to these fundamental freedoms, and we affirm our common heritage on this Human Rights Day.