U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1997 - Lesotho

Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, January 30, 1998.


Lesotho is a constitutional monarchy. Prime Minister Ntsu Mokhehle of the Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) party is the head of government and exercises executive authority. In 1993 Mokhehle, then leader of the Basotholand Congress Party (BCP), won free and fair multi-party general elections that resulted in BCP control of the Government and the bicameral Parliament. In June a schism in the BCP's ranks led Mokhehle to abandon the party he formed in 1952 and establish the new Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) Party. He took a majority of the members of the BCP with him, giving the LCD a 40-seat majority in the 65 member House of Assembly. The BCP was relegated to minority opposition status, with only 23 seats. The BCP refused to accept its opposition status. Beginning in August, BCP members refused to regularly attend parliamentary sessions and tried to make the country ungovernable, as opposition parties in the House of Assembly and the appointed 33-member Senate chose not to cooperate with the new LCD. Despite the fact that the LCD Government was formed in a constitutional manner, the opposition claims that the LCD is illegitimate and lacks the moral authority to rule because it never received an electoral mandate. Under the 1993 Constitution, the King is a ceremonial monarch with no executive authority and is proscribed from taking political initiatives. In 1994 King Letsie III, in collaboration with elements of the army, staged a palace coup, unconstitutionally suspended Parliament and installed an appointed Ruling Council. However, domestic and international pressures led to a rapid return of constitutional government. The judiciary appears subject at times to Government and chieftainship influence. The security forces consist of the Lesotho Defense Force (LDF), the Royal Lesotho Mounted Police (RLMP), and the National Security Service (NSS). The Government adopted legislation that brought these services under more direct civilian control. The LDF now answers to the Prime Minister, through the Ministry of Defense. The NSS is directly accountable to the Prime Minister, and the RLMP reports to the Minister of Home Affairs. Members of the security forces on occasion committed human rights abuses. Lesotho is a landlocked country surrounded by South Africa, and is almost entirely dependent on its sole neighbor for trade, finance, employment, and access to the outside world. A large proportion of the adult male work force is employed in the mines in South Africa; miners' remittances account for slightly over one-third of gross national product (GNP). Real GNP was projected by the Ministry of Planning to grow at a rate of 5.5percent during 1997, with inflation estimated at below 9percent at year-end. Per capita GNP was approximately $790. State-owned organizations predominate in the agro-industrial and agri-business sectors, but private sector activity dominates in the small manufacturing and construction sectors. Under the traditional chieftainship system, the vast majority of land, particularly in the interior, is owned by the Crown, and managed in trust by traditional chiefs who control land tenure and land use rights. Limited long-term (99-year) leasehold rights for land exist for farmers, householders and enterprises, but is still legally viewed as belonging to the King. The Government generally respected the human rights of citizens; however, there continued to be problems in some areas. Police occasionally used excessive force against suspects in custody. Discipline in the security services improved somewhat, but a few controversial disturbances still occurred. A police mutiny in February reflected entrenched mistrust and competition between the Government and some elements within the police force, and an uneasy institutional relationship between elements of the police and the army. It was sparked by the Government's only attempt to prosecute anyone for extrajudicial killings or other abuses committed in the conflicts of 1994 through 1996. As a result of their involvement in that mutiny, 33 members of the RLMP face sedition and high treason charges. The noninvolvement of the LDF in the police mutiny is a mark of progress in its evolution away from partisan politics toward a more professional and cooperative pattern of civil/military relations. In fact, the Army was called on to forcibly quell the police mutiny. Prison conditions are poor. The Government did not prosecute any one for extrajudicial killings or other abuses committed in the conflicts of 1994 through 1996. For example, palace guards who opened fire on demonstrators during the 1994 palace coup were given blanket amnesty as well as were the members of the coup's provisional government; and, also in 1994 the Deputy Prime Minister chaired a commission of inquiry for the incident in which the former Deputy Prime Minister was shot and killed allegedly by soldiers, but the results were not made public and there is no indication that military or law enforcement officials or palace guards were prosecuted for their involvement in incidents leading to these deaths. The security services reportedly monitor telephones illegally. Women's rights continued to be severely restricted, and domestic violence remained common. Government enforcement of prohibitions against child labor is lax in commercial enterprises involving hazardous conditions. Societal discrimination against people with disabilities is common.


Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom From:

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

There were no confirmed reports that officials were involved in political or extrajudicial killings. The commission of inquiry and investigation that looked into the September 1996 incident in which police opened fire on striking construction workers did not result in any prosecution or disciplinary action against the police involved. The Government did not successfully prosecute anyone for extrajudicial killings or other abuses committed in the conflicts caused by political unrest from 1994 through 1996. The only initiative to do so was the attempt to summon eight RLMP police officers to appear before the magistrate court in connection with the 1995 exchange of gunfire at a police station that killed three police officers. They were named by a commission of inquiry that concluded its work on December 1996. The eight officers' refusal to appear in court led to the 10-day February police mutiny, which was finally put down by an LDF assault on central police headquarters. At year's end they faced treason and sedition charges for the mutiny, but no charges for the 1995 killings. Palace guards who opened fire on demonstrators during the 1994 palace coup were given blanket amnesty as were the members of the coup's provisional government. In 1994 the Deputy Prime Minister chaired a commission of inquiry into the incident in which the former Deputy Prime Minister was shot and killed, allegedly by soldiers, but the results were not made public. There is no indication that military or law enforcement officials or palace guards were prosecuted for their involvement in incidents leading to these deaths. The authorities also failed to investigate or prosecute any security officials for the extrajudicial or summary killings committed during the political unrest of 1994. They also failed to investigate 1994 reports of police brutality, as well as pre-1994 reports of deaths in police custody of a number of unionists and criminal suspects.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

The Constitution prohibits torture or inhuman or degrading punishment or other treatment, and there were no reports of its use. However, there were credible reports that police officers occasionally used excessive force against criminal suspects in their custody. It was commonly alleged by NGO's and victims that police used excessive force, in the form of beatings, against criminal suspects in their custody. Some NGO's have alleged that police engage in acts of torture. Occasionally these allegations are accompanied by doctor's reports suggesting physical abuse of alleged victims. However, no police officer was prosecuted for such acts during the year and police leaders deny that torture is practiced or is condoned as a matter of policy. Prison conditions are poor. Prison facilities are overcrowded and in disrepair, but conditions do not threaten the health or lives of inmates. Prison conditions are not monitored independently.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

The Constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, and there were no known incidents of these abuses. However, police mutineers were imprisoned without charges from February through December, and have yet to be tried for these charges. Persons detained or arrested in criminal cases and defendants in civil cases have the right to legal counsel. The 1981 Criminal Procedures and Evidence Act, as amended in 1984, makes provision for granting bail. Bail is granted regularly. The Government has repealed the provisions of the 1984 Internal Security Act (ISA) allowing for investigative detention. There is concern within the legal fraternity that the police mutineers, who were arrested in February, were being held for a longer than usual period of time and without a trial by year's end. The delay was reportedly due to the fact that the prosecution had not completed its investigation. A member of the LDF was arrested and charged in July with sedition and treason for allegedly conspiring to overthrow the Government. He is being held at a maximum security prison and his trial is still pending. Pretrial detainees constitute a significant portion of total prison population, up to one-half in some locations. Because of the case backlog, periods of pretrial remand can last several years. The Government does not use forced exile.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The Constitution provides for an independent judiciary. However magistrates appear to be subject at times to government and chieftainship influence. The judiciary consists of the court of appeal (which meets semiannually), the High Court, magistrate's courts, and customary or traditional courts, which exist largely in rural areas to administer customary law. The High Court also provides procedural and substantive advice and guidance on matters of legal procedure to military tribunals; however, it does not participate in arriving at judgments. Military tribunals have jurisdiction only over military cases, and their decisions may not be appealed. Both law and custom severely limit the rights of women (see Section 5), but court procedures and treatment of women are not blatantly discriminatory. Accused persons have the right to counsel and public trial. The authorities generally respect court decisions and rulings. There is no trial by jury. Criminal trials are normally adjudicated by a single High Court judge who presides, with two assessors serving in an advisory capacity. In civil cases, judges normally hear cases alone. There were no reports of political prisoners. There is no system to provide public defenders.

f. Arbitrary Interference With Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

Although search warrants are usually required under normal circumstances, the ISA provides police with wide powers to stop and search persons and vehicles and to enter premises for similar purposes without a warrant. There are no prohibitions against monitoring telephone conversations on national security grounds and the security services are believed to do so routinely.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The Constitution provides for freedom of speech and of the press, and the Government generally respected these rights in practice. There are several independent newspapers--including one each controlled by the Roman Catholic and Lesotho Evangelical Churches, and two English-language weekly newspapers that routinely criticize the Government. The official state-owned media consist of one radio station, one local television channel which broadcasts only one 1-hour daily newscast, and two weekly newspapers, which all faithfully reflect the official positions of the ruling party. There are no private radio or television stations. The Government has withdrawn all of its advertising from a local language (Sesotho) newspaper, which is linked to a faction of the BCP. The Government alleged that the newspaper defamed members of the Cabinet. Four cabinet ministers filed a civil lawsuit against the newspaper, seeking compensation for the alleged slander and defamation. In addition, ruling party members of Parliament questioned the newspaper's editors at length, and implicitly threatened another civil lawsuit. The High Court later threw out the lawsuit, and ordered the ministers concerned to cease using a government lawyer to represent them in the case, to obtain private legal counsel, and to refrain from using the attorney general in private matters. The editor of the newspaper believes that these actions amounted to press harassment by the Government and were an effort to censor or influence the editorial policy of a private news organ. It appears that this was an effort by the Government to intimidate and influence a newspaper editor who was critical of its policies. However, the newspaper continues to be published and is widely read, and there have been no other overt attempts to close it or limit its circulation. In September the Speaker of Parliament took an unprecedented and controversial step to ban the public and the news media from attending parliamentary sessions. He claimed that some members of the public, who were taking sides in partisan debates between the LCD and the BCP, were inappropriately interrupting the deliberations, disturbing the decorum of the House of Assembly, and directing unacceptable language toward Members of Parliament. The rules of Parliament did not allow the Speaker to make a distinction between members of the public and the press in this matter, so the speaker banned both groups from parliamentary sessions. This ban was lifted in December and the press and public have returned to the Parliament's gallery. The Government fully respects academic freedom. Although the Government owns and administers the country's only university, the academic staff represent the full political spectrum and are unhindered from expressing their views.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

Under a 1993 revision of the ISA, a public meeting, rally, or march no longer requires prior police permission, only advance notification. The police and local authorities generally respected these rights in practice. Political party meetings and rallies occur regularly throughout the country. The Government did not investigate or prosecute any of the security personnel who killed and wounded several protesters at a peaceful 1994 progovernment demonstration. The Constitution provides for freedom of association. Although the Government generally respects this right in practice, in July and August the Government briefly banned all demonstrations at the royal palace after opposition parties marched there to protest to the King the formation of the LCD. The Ministry of Interior stated that the King could not be presented with petitions personally because he had no mechanism of addressing petitions outside the cabinet and the Government. In addition to the BCP and the Basotholand National Party (BNP), there are several smaller political parties.

c. Freedom of Religion

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion and the Government respects this right in practice.

d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation

Citizens generally are able to move freely within the country and across national boundaries. The Government places no obstacles in the way of citizens who wish to emigrate. In 1994 the Government allowed about 25 refugees to register with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to study in Lesotho. They were expected to return to their countries of first asylum after completing their studies. Other than these students, Lesotho has no resident refugee population. There is no clear policy on first asylum or forcible return of refugees, but the Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials indicate that they would consult with the UNHCR in specific cases.

Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government

Citizens exercised this right in 1993 in the first multiparty democratic elections in more than 20 years. The BCP won control of the National Assembly. Despite its landslide electoral victory, the BCP Government was forced to contend with a number of challenges to its power in 1994. Those challenges culminated in August 1994 when King Letsie III, with LDF backing, exceeded his constitutional authority when he unconstitutionally suspended the Parliament and installed a Ruling Council. Many citizens responded by demonstrating their support for the democratically elected BCP Government. Organized labor and others held two national demonstrations--stay aways from work--to demonstrate support for the ousted Government, and there were numerous rallies at the National University. As a result of both domestic and international pressure, the King reversed himself, and the BCP regained control of the Government. The 1994 memorandum of understanding between King Letsie III and Prime Minister Mokhehle--which was brokered by South Africa, Botswana, and Zimbabwe--called for the reinstatement of the King's father, MoshoeshoeII, who had been deposed by the previous military government and exiled in 1990; as well as steps to broaden the political process. The 1994 suspension of the Constitution by King Letsie III, although short-lived, highlighted the fragility of constitutional rule. In early 1995, Moshoeshoe II was reinstated as King. However, King Letsie III was again sworn in as King in January 1996, upon the death of his father. The formal coronation of King Letsie III was held on October 31. Preparations are underway for the second consecutive national multiparty elections, which are scheduled for April and May, 1998. There are no legal impediments to women's participation in government or politics, but women remained underrepresented. There are 2 women in the 65-member House of Assembly and 7 women in the 33-member Senate. Both the Minister of Transportation and Communication and the Deputy Speaker of the House of Assembly are women.

Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights

The Government did not hinder the activities of various nongovernmental human rights groups. These groups freely criticized both the Government and the short-lived Ruling Council. The Government was cooperative during an Amnesty International visit in 1994.

Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status

The Constitution prohibits discrimination based on race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, birth or other status, and the Government generally respected these prohibitions in practice. However, the Constitution also recognizes customary law as a parallel legal system, and women have severely restricted inheritance and property rights under the traditional chieftainship system (see Section 5, Women).


Domestic violence, including wife beating, occurs frequently. Reliable statistics are not available, but the problem is believed to be widespread. In Basotho tradition a wife may return to her maiden home if physically abused by her husband. Under common law, wife beating is a criminal offense and defined as assault. Women have severely restricted inheritance and property rights under the traditional chieftainship system which is recognized under the Constitution. However, few domestic violence cases are brought to trial. Women's rights organizations, such as the local chapter of the International Federation of Women Lawyers, have taken a leading role in educating women regarding their rights under customary and common law, highlighting the importance of women fully participating in the democratic process.


The Government has not adequately addressed directly children's rights and welfare issues, although it has devoted substantial resources to primary and secondary education. Education is not compulsory even for the primary levels, and there are significant instances particularly in rural areas, where children do not attend school because they are involved in subsistence activities in support of their family's welfare, or families cannot afford the costs associated with school attendance (for example, fees for purchase of uniforms, books, and materials). This problem of school nonattendance affects boys disproportionately more than girls. In traditional rural Basotho society, livestock herding by young boys is a rite of passage and a prerequisite to manhood in the community. There is no pattern of societal abuse against children, but many children work at a young age (see Section 6.d.).

People With Disabilities

Discrimination against physically disabled persons in employment, education, or provision of other public or government services is unlawful. However, societal discrimination against the disabled is common. The Government has not legislated or mandated accessibility to public buildings for the disabled.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

Most citizens speak a common language and share common historical and cultural traditions. Small numbers of Asians (primarily ethnic Chinese and Indians) and South African whites are active in the country's commercial life. Economic and racial tension between the Chinese business community, specifically textile and garment industry employers, and the Basotho remained a problem.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

Workers have the legal right to join or form unions without prior government authorization, with the exception of civil servants. The Labor Code specifically prohibits civil servants from joining unions. The Government regards all work by civil servants as essential. In a judgment by the Lesotho High Court in June concerning a 2-year-old petition filed by the Lesotho Union of Public Servants (LUPE) against the registrar of law, Chief Justice Kheola dismissed LUPE's application on the grounds that it was not consistent with the labor code. The LUPE filed an appeal. The Ministry of Labor lacks adequate numbers of investigators to systematically review these claims by trade unionists. Union leaders believe little government action has been taken to remedy this situation. Under the 1993 Labor Code, prepared with the assistance of the International Labor Organization (ILO), all trade union federations require government registration. There are two small trade union federations that rarely cooperate with each other, the Lesotho Trade Union Congress and the Lesotho Federation of Democratic Unions. Unions are not formally affiliated or tied to political parties. The labor and trade union movement is very weak and fragmented. There are several small unions in the public and industrial sectors but there is no unified trades union congress. There are cases of multiple unions competitively organizing small numbers of workers in the same sector. Overall, unionized workers represent only about 10percent of the work force. Consequently, efforts toward collective bargaining and tripartite policy-making are not amenable to strong trade union influences. There is credible evidence that many employers inhibit union representatives and organizers from gaining access to employer premises to organize workers or represent them in disputes with owners or managers. A large percentage of the male labor force works in the gold and coal mines of South Africa. The remainder are primarily engaged in traditional agriculture. A majority of Basotho mine workers are members of the South African National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). However, as a foreign organization, the NUM is not permitted to engage in union activities in Lesotho. No legally sanctioned strike has occurred since independence in 1966. Legal protection for strikers against retribution is not always enforced in cases of illegal strikes. In late August, workers at the state-owned Lesotho Telecommunications Corporation (LTC) began an industrial action that led to a lock-out, but officials called it an illegal strike. The LTC Board of Governors filed an urgent application in the Lesotho High Court requesting the Court to bar workers from the LTC premises. In October the High Court ruled in favor of the Board of Governors that these employees were illegally on strike. Subsequently, the Board fired over 300 technicians and other auxiliary staff members and denied them severance and other benefits. The workers appealed for a reversal against this allegedly wrongful and unfair dismissal. The Government was successful in negotiating the reinstatement of employees following several illegal strikes in 1995 and 1996. Security forces violently suppressed strikes in the textile, garment, and construction industries during 1994 and once during 1996. There were no instances of governmental restrictions on international affiliations or contacts by unions or their members.

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

All legally recognized trade unions in principle enjoy the right to organize and bargain collectively, but in practice the authorities often restrict these rights. Employers are often not cooperative in this area. Employees are often threatened with expulsion and loss of employment once they join unions. There is credible evidence that some employers in the textile and garment sector engage in the use of blacklists to deny employment to workers who have been fired by one employer within that sector. Although there was some collective bargaining activity between unions and employers to set wage and benefit rates, employers generally continued to set wage rates through unilateral action. There is a large backlog of industrial dispute cases on the docket of the Labor Court, which has only one labor judge who is only now dealing with cases filed in 1995. There are several industrial zones, in which mostly textile and apparel firms engage in manufacturing for export. All national labor laws apply in these industrial zones.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The Government specifically prohibits forced and bonded labor by children, and there were no reports that it occurred. The 1987 Employment Act prohibits forced or compulsory labor, and there is no indication that such labor is practiced.

d. Status of Child Labor Practices and Minimum Age for Employment

The Government specifically prohibits forced and bonded labor by children, and there were no reports that it occurred (see Section 6.c.). The legal minimum age for employment in commercial or industrial enterprises is 14. In practice, however, children under age 14 are often employed in the textile and garment sector and in family-owned businesses. As much as 15 percent of the textile work force of some 15,000 may be children between the ages of 12 and 15, according to a 1994 study by a foreign government. After visiting all 14 of Lesotho's nonpartisan garment producers in 1994, the ILO, responding to a complaint by trade unions in the textile and clothing industry, was not able to confirm the unions' allegation of illegal child labor. There are prohibitions against the employment of minors in commercial, industrial, or nonfamily enterprises involving hazardous or dangerous working conditions, but enforcement is very lax. The Ministry of Labor and Employment's Inspectorate is severely understaffed. Young people under 18 years of age may not be recruited for employment outside of the country. In traditional society, the rigorous and occasionally dangerous working conditions for the country's young livestock herdboys are considered a rite of passage and a prerequisite to manhood within rural Basotho culture which is beyond the reach of labor laws (see Section 5 Children.)

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

Wages are low. The monthly minimum wage for unskilled labor is $68 (320 maloti); for a heavy vehicle operator it is $131 (616 maloti). Minimum wages in lower skilled jobs are insufficient to ensure a decent standard of living for a worker and family. Most wage earners supplement their income through subsistence agriculture or remittances from relatives employed in South Africa. Many employers now pay more than minimum wages in an effort to attract and retain motivated employees. There are also indications that some employers, especially in export sectors, treat the minimum wage as a maximum wage, rather than a minimum. This situation is made possible by the high levels of unemployment and underemployment, which offer a large pool of surplus unskilled labor that bids down wage rates and undermines job security for workers who make demands for better wages and conditions of work. The labor code spells out basic worker rights, including a maximum 45-hour workweek, a weekly rest period of at least 24 hours, 12 days of paid leave per year, and paid public holidays. The labor code requires employers to provide adequate light, ventilation, and sanitary facilities for employees and to install and maintain machinery in a manner designed to minimize the risk of injury. In practice employers generally follow these regulations only within the wage economy in urban areas, and the Ministry of Labor and Employment enforces the regulations haphazardly. The Labor Code does not explicitly protect the right of workers to remove themselves from hazardous situations without prejudice to employment. However, Labor Code sections on safety in the workplace and dismissal imply that dismissal in such circumstances would be illegal.

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