Lesotho is a constitutional monarchy. In recent years, the army’s involvement in the country’s already fragile politics has resulted in political instability and a security crisis. Corruption remains a challenge. Customary practice and law restrict women’s rights in areas such as property, inheritance, and marriage and divorce.
- In March, Prime Minister Thomas Thabane suspended Parliament for three months in what he said was part of government efforts to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. Shortly before the suspension, the National Assembly, Parliament’s lower house, had passed a bill preventing Thabane from calling for new elections if he lost a no-confidence vote. In April, the Constitutional Court overturned the suspension of Parliament, and a day later Thabane deployed the army to restore order and peace against what he called “rogue” elements destabilizing his government.
- In May, Prime Minister Thabane, who was being investigated for the 2017 murder of his estranged former wife, resigned after months of political uncertainty and calls from within his government for his resignation. Moeketsi Majoro became the new prime minister later that month under a new coalition between the All Basotho Convention (ABC) and the opposition Democratic Congress (DC).
- In December, DC leader and deputy prime minister Mathibeli Mokhothu, was linked in a court case to Rana Qamar, a Pakistani national well-known for human trafficking who has allegedly donated extensively to the DC. Qamar has been accused of using two cabinet ministers, including Mokhothu, to pressure an immigration official into letting two Pakistanis into Lesotho without visas.
|Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?
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Lesotho is a constitutional monarchy. King Letsie III serves as the ceremonial head of state. The prime minister is head of government; the head of the majority party or coalition automatically becomes prime minister following elections, making the prime minister’s legitimacy largely dependent on the conduct of the polls. Thomas Thabane became prime minister after the All Basotho Convention (ABC) won a plurality in a snap election in 2017. In May 2020, the coalition government collapsed and Thabane, who was being investigated for the 2017 murder of his estranged former wife, resigned after months of political uncertainty and increasing pressure from within the ABC and among coalition partners calling for his resignation. The ABC and opposition Democratic Congress (DC) formed a new coalition government with Moeketsi Majoro as prime minister later that month.
The prime minister can advise the king to dissolve Parliament and call a new election, but members of the lower house voted to restrict this ability by constitutional amendment in October 2019. The amendment was still under consideration in the upper house at year’s end.
|Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?
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The lower house of Parliament, the National Assembly, has 120 seats; 80 are filled through first-past-the-post constituency votes, and the remaining 40 through proportional representation. The Senate—the upper house of Parliament—consists of 22 principal chiefs who wield considerable authority in rural areas and whose membership is hereditary, along with 11 other members appointed by the king and acting on the advice of the Council of State. Members of both chambers serve five-year terms.
In 2017, the coalition government of former prime minister Pakalitha Mosisili—head of the DC—lost a no-confidence vote, triggering the third legislative election since 2012. Election observers declared the contest peaceful, generally well administered, and competitive. However, isolated instances of political violence were noted, as was a heavy security presence at many polling places, which electoral officials said intimidated some voters. The ABC won a plurality of seats and formed a coalition government.
In May 2020, the coalition government collapsed after Thabane’s resignation, and the ABC formed a new coalition with the DC later in the month.
|Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies?
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Although the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) faces capacity constraints, and the credibility of the voters’ roll has been questioned in the past, the IEC has been commended for its independence and its efforts to uphold electoral laws and oversee credible elections. International observers broadly commended the IEC’s administration of the 2017 snap poll but noted deficiencies they linked to a lack of capacity, including late disbursement of campaign funds to political parties.
IEC chairperson Mahapela Lehohla and two other commissioners attempted to remain in their posts after their terms expired in January 2019 and sued the government to lengthen their mandates that May. Lesotho’s political parties opposed their efforts, and the Transformation Resource Centre, a local nongovernmental organization (NGO), filed a legal challenge at the Constitutional Court in July. The court rejected the commissioners’ case that October and Lehohla’s appeal that December, leaving the IEC with no active members. After IEC workers appealed to Parliament, in November 2020, King Letsie III appointed three IEC commissioners based on the advice of the Council of State.
|Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings?
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Political parties may form freely and are allocated funding by the IEC, and 27 parties contested the 2017 election. However, politics have been unstable since a failed 2014 coup. In recent years, the country has seen politically motivated assassinations and assassination attempts, and political leaders operate within the country at some risk to their personal safety. For example, Nqosa Mahao, the leader of a faction that was fighting Thabane for control of the ABC, reported that he was targeted by an assassination plot in June 2019.
|Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?
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Opposition parties have a realistic chance of gaining power through elections, and power has rotated frequently between DC- and ABC-led coalitions. However, political instability and associated violence and intimidation has at times prompted opposition leaders to flee the country. The South African Development Community (SADC) facilitated a governance reform process to address these concerns, culminating in the creation of the National Reforms Authority (NRA) in August 2019. The 59 members of the NRA were sworn into office in February 2020 and are expected to complete their work at least 6 months before the 2022 elections.
|Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means?
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Recent political instability is largely related to disputes among factions of the Lesotho Defence Force (LDF). Although the heavy military presence at voting stations during the 2017 election was questioned, no reports of voter interference surfaced. However, in June 2019, then defense minister Tefo Mapesela claimed that senior police officers threatened him after he criticized an army commander and a senior intelligence official in a phone conversation.
Principal chiefs wield some political influence over their rural subjects.
In 2018, Lesotho-based Chinese businessman Yan Xie claimed that he heavily donated to most of Lesotho’s political parties. Critics argued that Yan’s financial clout gave him considerable influence over the country’s political elites, exemplified by his 2017 appointment as a “head of special projects” and special trade envoy. In June 2020, Yan reportedly fled to Australia after learning that he was being investigated for corruption.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities?
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The constitution guarantees political rights for all. However, societal norms discourage women from running for office, and no parliamentary or party-list gender quota exists to ensure their representation. After the 2017 election, only 23 percent of seats in Parliament were held by women, down from 25 percent before the contest. Women’s involvement in local government has also declined; women held 49 percent of local positions in 2011, but only 40 percent in 2017. The inaccessibility of some polling stations to persons living with disabilities was raised as a concern during the 2017 election. LGBT+ individuals generally face societal discrimination, and this discourages them from advocating for their rights in the political sphere.
|Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?
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While elections are held without delays and representatives are duly seated, persistent political instability disrupts normal government operations. Reports of Prime Minister Thabane and his current wife’s involvement in the 2017 murder of his estranged wife and his initial resistance to resigning from office in early 2020 destabilized much of the government and focused Parliament’s energies on managing the political crisis. In March 2020, Thabane suspended Parliament for three months in what he said was part of government efforts to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. Shortly before the suspension, the National Assembly had passed a bill preventing him from calling for new elections if he lost a no-confidence vote. This was overturned in April by the Constitutional Court, and a day later Thabane deployed the army to restore order and peace against what he called “rogue” elements destabilizing his government. In May, Parliament rejected a move to extend the state of emergency by six months; the prime minister was instead advised to use powers provided for under the Disaster Management Act.
The National Reforms Authority (NRA) was inaugurated in February 2020 to oversee the implementation of reforms backed by the Southern African Development Community (SADC) that are meant to bring about lasting political stability, peace, and security in Lesotho.
|Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?
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Official corruption and impunity remain significant problems. The main anticorruption agency, the Directorate on Corruption and Economic Offence (DCEO), lacks full prosecutorial powers and faces capacity and funding challenges. The Asset Forfeiture Unit, which was established in 2016 to recover property connected to corruption cases, is largely ineffective. In July 2020, DCEO Director General Mahlomola Manyokole reported that Acting Chief Justice ‘Maseforo Mahase had approved plans for the establishment of a specialized anticorruption court. That same month, Parliament made amendments to the DCEO Act to grant the agency powers to investigate money-laundering crimes beyond Lesotho’s borders. Anticorruption officials have claimed that individuals and companies have used state capture tactics to obtain immunity for corrupt dealings.
While DCEO officers work to fulfill the directorate’s mandate, the agency took few corruption cases to court in 2020. In February, Mahali Phamotse, the Gender, Youth, Sports and Recreation Minister, was charged with corruption over a 2015 tender for school textbooks. She was released on bail and continued in her role. In September 2020, the DCEO issued a directive to the Ministry of Health to stop payments to all suppliers due to corruption allegations in the awarding of tenders for medical supplies intended to combat the COVID-19 crisis.
In December 2020, DC leader and deputy prime minister Mathibeli Mokhothu, was linked in a court case to Rana Qamar, a Pakistani national well-known for human trafficking whohas allegedly donated extensively to the DC. Qamar has been accused of using two cabinet ministers, including Mokhothu, to pressure an immigration official into letting two Pakistanis into Lesotho without visas.
|Does the government operate with openness and transparency?
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Lesotho has no access to information law, and responses to information requests are not guaranteed or responded to by information officers in a timely manner. The management of public finances is shrouded in secrecy. Government procurement decisions and tenders generally cannot be accessed online. Although high-level government and elected officials are required to disclose their assets and business interests—which Prime Minister Majoro and his cabinet did in June 2020—these declarations are not made public. Enforcement of the rules is limited by resource constraints. The appointment process for judges lacks transparency, though in December 2020, the Minister of Law and Justice won a Constitutional Court decision in December that effectively stops the Judicial Services Commission (JSC) from recommending names for appointment without the participation of a majority of its members.
|Are there free and independent media?
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Freedom of the press is only indirectly protected under constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression. Journalists are subject to threats and intimidation from the authorities and private citizens. State and private media outlets have also been accused of open bias.
Journalists additionally face statutory barriers that interfere in their work, including criminal code provisions that bar sedition and offenses against the “dignity of the royal family.” The Penal Code, adopted in 2010, allows police officers to force journalists to reveal their sources. In July 2020, the bodyguards of Deputy Police Commissioner Paseka Mokete physically assaulted a Lesotho Times photographer and asked him to delete photos he had taken of Mokete, who was appearing in court on charges of sexually assaulting a junior police officer. In November 2020, one journalist was shot by members the Lesotho Mounted Police Service (LMPS) while reporting on the youth protests known as #BachaShutDown.
In October 2020, the government proposed restrictions on social media use, including provisions that allow regulators to investigate online posts and order their removal.
|Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private?
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The constitution provides legal protections for freedom of religion and prohibits religious discrimination, and religious freedom is generally upheld in practice.
|Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination?
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Academic freedom is generally respected in practice, though the government does interfere in the administration of institutions of higher education. In September 2019, National University of Lesotho (NUL) officials warned that the institution risked closure due to government funding cuts.
|Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution?
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The constitution provides legal protections for freedom of expression. However, political violence in recent years has discouraged open political debate. In October 2020, the Lesotho Communications Authority (LCA) proposed regulations for online content that would require users with at least 100 followers or a reach of at least 100 to register as internet broadcasters and obtain a certificate from the LCA, which has the authority to investigate and order the removal of posts that do not comply with Lesotho Telecommunications Authority (Broadcasting) Rules of 2004.
|Is there freedom of assembly?
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Protests and demonstrations are permitted, but organizers must seek a permit seven days in advance. Demonstrations take place each year and are sometimes broken up violently by police. In 2020, various groups, including health care professionals, garment workers, and transport operators staged protests during the COVID-19 lockdown, with demands ranging from the payment of unpaid wages to the provision of personal protective equipment in hospitals. Police shot one journalist and violently detained others at the #BachaShutDown youth protests in November 2020.
|Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work?
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NGOs generally operate without restrictions. However, some civil society groups act cautiously when working on politically sensitive issues. In addition, government rules on registering NGOs are strict; those who are accused of neglecting to register their organization risk a five-year prison sentence. No NGOs have been held to account for failure to register in recent years.
|Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations?
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While labor and union rights are constitutionally guaranteed, the union movement is weak and highly fragmented, and these challenges have undermined unions’ ability to advance the rights of workers. The government has previously been accused of undermining bodies like the National Advisory Committee on Labour (NACOLA), Wages Advisory Board, and Industrial Relations Council.
Many employees in the textile sector—Lesotho’s largest formal employer—face obstacles when attempting to join unions. In August 2020, Bull Clothing fired more than 200 workers for participating in a June strike action, during which police reportedly used excessive force. The company later rehired the workers on probationary contracts with significantly reduced benefits and wages. The workers’ union took the matter to the Directorate of Dispute Prevention and Resolution (DDPR) conciliation tribunal; the case had not been heard by year’s end.
|Is there an independent judiciary?
|2 / 4
The constitution protects judicial independence, but the judiciary lacks resources and faces a shortage of judicial officers. The Lesotho Times reported in October 2020 that the judicial system was on the verge of collapse due to a lack of funds and infrastructural disrepair. Judges do rule against the government, including on politically sensitive issues. In May 2020, Prime Minister Majoro admitted that factional battles within the ruling ABC had eroded the independence of the judiciary. The SADC and the government decided in 2018 to engage foreign judges on high-profile and politically sensitive cases. In April, the Constitutional Court ruled Prime minister Thabane’s suspension of Parliament was unconstitutional.
The judicial appointment process lacks transparency, and members of the JSC at times act without proper oversight.
|Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters?
|2 / 4
While the courts generally uphold due process, a large backlog of cases has left individuals subject to trial delays and lengthy pretrial detention. In the first eight months of 2019, the government appointed three foreign judges to preside over high-profile criminal cases that were affected by the ongoing backlog. In June 2020, reports emerged that one of the foreign judges had resigned over poor working conditions. The other two had intended to resign citing similar concerns but did not when they received significant pay increases.
The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated issues within the courts system, though the Court of Appeal operated during the lockdown period in 2020, holding remote hearings.
|Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies?
|2 / 4
Lesotho faced years of violence related to factional disputes within the army; the SADC appointed a facilitation team to create a reform process that would partially focus on the security sector. The SADC’s work culminated in the creation of the NRA, though the country did not meet the original May 2019 deadline for full implementation of the SADC-backed program. Members of the NRA were sworn into office in February 2020 and were expected to complete their work by mid-2021.
The constitution provides legal protections against torture, but allegations of torture have been levied against police forces, the LDF, and prison authorities. The enforcement of COVID-19 regulations in 2020 was marked by numerous reports of police brutality and excessive use of force. In March 2020, Lesotho Lawyers for Human Rights filed an application seeking a court declaration that the state of emergency had not authorized law enforcement agencies to torture civilians who violated the regulations. In September, a civilian from Mafeteng was tortured to death by the police.
Lesotho does not have an independent administrative body to investigate human rights abuses.
|Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?
|2 / 4
Rights are restricted for some groups. Same-sex relations between men are illegal, though this law is not enforced. LGBT+ individuals face societal discrimination challenges accessing services, like health care. Discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity is not prohibited by law. Customary laws and other social norms discriminate against women. For example, women are considered minors under the guardianship of their fathers before marriage and their husbands after marriage. Schools often lack facilities for students with disabilities. Parliament failed to pass the Disability Equity Bill in 2020, which would advance the rights of people with disabilities.
|Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education?
|3 / 4
The constitution protects freedom of movement, which is generally upheld. In recent years, a high incidence of rape on a path near the Ha Lebona and Ha Koeshe villages has prompted some women to reduce travel in the area.
COVID-19 regulations in 2020 restricted free movement in order to curtail the spread of the virus. Some restrictions were lifted late in the year, including on international travel.
|Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors?
|2 / 4
The constitution protects property rights, though related laws are inconsistently upheld. Women’s rights are restricted in areas such as property and inheritance, including chieftainships which can only be inherited by men. Expropriation is provided for in the constitution but is uncommon and subject to fair compensation. Government instability and the country’s volatile politics hampers normal business activity. In November 2020, Parliament adopted new regulations that will reserve a list of 47 business activities for the Basotho ethnic group. Foreigners can only participate in these activities as minority shareholders.
|Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance?
|2 / 4
Prominent social norms and harmful patriarchal attitudes negatively affect women. Women’s rights are restricted in marriage and divorce. Violence against women is high, and there is no domestic violence law despite government promises to enact one. Forced and child marriages remain an ongoing problem. Advocacy organizations in 2020 reported increases in cases of gender-based violence (GBV) during the COVID-19 lockdown. In September 2020, a study by the Commonwealth Secretariat reported that one in three women in Lesotho had experienced physical or sexual violence, often at the hands of their partners. Accountability for the perpetrators of gender-based violence is not consistent.
In August 2019, former constitutional affairs minister Mootsi Lehata, who served under former prime minister Mosisili, reached a settlement to avoid a trial over a 2018 rape accusation. Lehata was accused of raping a 17-year-old girl, who subsequently became pregnant, that January; the survivor withdrew her claim as part of the settlement.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?
|2 / 4
Human trafficking remains an ongoing challenge for Lesotho. The US State Department’s 2020 Trafficking in Persons Report found that the Lesotho authorities did not meet minimum standards to eliminate trafficking or make any significant progress in addressing it. Few victims are identified, and few support services are made available to them or the appropriate NGOs. The legal framework for prosecuting trafficking remains weak, without strong penalties to deter offenders. In November 2020, the National Assembly passed amendments to the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Law which introduce tougher sentences for convicted persons, including life imprisonment if the victim is a child, and abolished fines for offenses.
In December 2020, the DC party leader and deputy prime minister Mathibeli Mokhothu was reportedly linked in a court case to Rana Qamar, a Pakistani national well-known for human trafficking. Qamar has been accused of using two cabinet ministers, including Mokhothu, to pressure an immigration official into letting two Pakistanis into Lesotho without visas.
Child labor and forced labor for both men and women remains a problem.