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Persistent violations




Lesotho is a landlocked enclave entirely surrounded by its neighbour, South Africa. A semi-self governing territory under the British Empire, post-independence saw decades of political instability and successive coups, with a measure of stability for the constitutional monarchy only emerging in 2002, when Lesotho held its first ever peaceful elections. While media freedoms are relatively good in Lesotho, persistent human rights issues remain, particularly around gender, child labour and addressing the impact of HIV/AIDS prevalence.


The landlocked state of Lesotho is entirely surrounded by South Africa making it, along with the Vatican and San Marino, one of only three countries in the world to be enclaves within another. Located in an area of highlands, the lowest point of Lesotho is still 1400m above sea level, while 80% of the country is 1800m or more. This high altitude gives it a cooler climate than its latitude would normally produce. The largely mountainous terrain means that there is little standing water in the country but that there are significant outflows, such as the Orange and Caledon rivers, into South Africa. The capital city is Maseru, located on the Caledon River and the Lesotho/South Africa border.

Population and Language

Lesotho’s population, as of 2013, is around 2,216900.[1] The population is largely homogenous, nearly entirely identifying as Basotho (“Sotho People”). Sotho or Sesotho is a Bantu language and the Basotho people have common ancestry with the other Bantu peoples of Southern Africa. In addition to their identity as Basotho, many of the population are also members of sub-groups such as the Kwena. In addition to the Basotho, there is also a small European and Asian population.

Sesotho and English are the official languages and most widely understood, though Xhosa, Afrikaans and Zulu are also sometimes spoken.

The population is majority Christian, split approximately evenly between Catholics and Protestants (Evangelicals and Anglicans). Many Christians in Lesotho continue to practice elements of indigenous traditional belief systems, either through integration or in parallel with their Christianity. In addition to the Christian population, there is a small Muslim community, primarily in the North-East of the country, as well as some Hindus and some groups who solely practice traditional belief systems.

History and politics

Lesotho was part of a large area of Southern Africa settled by Sotho-Tswana peoples between during the first millenium CE, as part of the waves of Bantu migrations. The Basotho, speaking a distinct dialect, settled across the area around present day Lesotho. During the early 19th century, however, it is popularly claimed that they were driven into the mountains to escape raids by Zulu tribes and the period of inter-group violence in the lowlands commonly known as the “time of troubles” - though the exact origins and nature of this movement is disputed. Moshoeshoe I, the son of a chief from the Kwena clan, led a number of the Basotho into the highlands which proved to be a very defensible position. Protected both from the Zulu kingdoms below and the growing presence of European settlers, he established the forerunner of modern Lesotho, called Basutoland, in 1822. During the middle of the nineteenth century, Basutoland was increasingly threatened by encroaching Boer settlers, leading Moshoeshoe to seek alliance and later protectorate status from the British. After a short-lived period of control by the Cape Colony and brief periods of armed rebellion in the 1870s, Basutoland returned to direct British rule in the 1880s, with a British Resident Commissioner governing alongside a council of traditional chiefs, in turn headed by a paramount chief. Attempts to incorporate Basutoland into the Union of South Africa after 1910 were widely resisted by local people so it remained a British territory, with a gradually increasing level of local autonomy and development of democratic institutions until gaining independence in 1966.

Initially, Lesotho was established as a constitutional monarchy, with the king ruling alongside an elected senate and national assembly. The Basotho National Party had won the election shortly before independence and formed the first government, but refused to hand over power in the face of a defeat by the rival Basutoland Congress Party in 1970. Democracy was suspended, replaced by an appointed national assembly and the BNP took full power - the BCP in turn went into hiding and began a small scale guerilla war against the government. In 1986 a military coup, led by Justin Lekhanya forced the BNP from power. Initially, the military greatly increased the executive power of the king, Moshoeshoe II, who governed the country with a civilian cabinet and advised by the military council. When Moshoeshoe tried to extend his power, however, he was deposed in favour of his son Letsie III. In 1991, Lekhanya was ousted by another military coup, who eventually restored civilian rule in 1993. The BCP won the subsequent election and formed the first government - though it was briefly ousted in 1994 by Letsie III attempting to force the restoration of his father. After a period of political crisis, the BCP were restored and Moshoeshoe II became king once more, though with significantly restricted powers compared to the 1986-1992 period. Moshoeshoe II died in 1996, and Letsie III took the throne once more. A split in the BCP in 1997 led to the creation of the Lesotho Congress for Democracy, who won a landslide victory in 1998, gaining 79 of the 80 parliamentary seats. Despite complaints from opposition and some incidents during the election, international observers largely concluded the vote to have been fair. Dissatisfaction with the result led to intensified protests, however, erupting into a full mutiny by elements of the military in August-September 1998. Botswanan and South African troops entered the country to restore stability, at the request of the government, leading to violent confrontations. The presence of South African troops proved particularly incendiary, leading to fighting and causing a great deal of damage in major urban centres. Though the mutiny was put down in a few months, concerns about the voting system led to the addition of a number of proportional elected seats in addition to constituency ones. After the relatively peaceful elections of 2002, the LCD continues to hold all but one of the eighty constituency seats at the national assembly, but nine opposition parties (including the BNP) held all forty of the proportional seats between them. In 2006, the LCD in turn split, leading to the creation of a new party called the All Basotho Convention, taking with them 18 seats and reducing the LCDs proportion of the 120 total seats to only 61. This triggered an election in 2007, the result of which was disputed but which kept the LCD in power. The ABC emerged as the most prominent member of the opposition bloc during this period and, in the 2012 election, was able to take advantage of yet another split in the LCD to unseat the current Prime Minister - who had broken away to form his own party, the Democratic Congress - and install their own leader as head of a coalition government. The election was judged to be largely free and fair and the defeated parties accepted tehir role in opposition.

Lesotho today is a constitutional monarchy, with Letsie III as monarch and head of state. His position today is purely ceremonial, however, and all actual executive functions of the state reside with the Prime Minister as head of government. The parliament has two chambers - the national assembly, which is elected, and the senate, which is a combination of hereditary chieftainships and appointees of the king. The monarchy is hereditary, but a candidate can be deposed by the college of chiefs. The prime minister is usually the head of the party with largest majority in the national assembly, or from one of the parties in a majority coalition. National assembly members are elected for five year terms, though elections are sometimes called sooner due to the collapse of government majorities. The national assembly has 120 seats, split between 80 constituencies and 40 “proportional” seats. The latter are used to adjust the number of seats in parliament to better reflect the actual proportion of the vote different parties received. Lesotho is a multi-party democracy - previously, politics tended to be dominated by only one party at a time, but the most recent election saw small parties play a bigger role than before.

Lesotho’s judiciary is nominally independent, but in practice faces considerable political interference from the government. In particular, while the scope of judges formal powers and responsibility are considered adequate, issues of appointment, job security and manipulation of salaries serve to undermine their practical independence.[2]


Lesotho is currently usually classified as a lower income country.[3] GNI per capita (as of 2012) stands at $1380 - while this has increased significantly since the year 2000, it has dramatically under-performed the average for lower middle income countries over the same period. Until the year 2000, the economy of Lesotho was heavily reliant on subsistence agriculture and providing labour to South Africa - since then, however, the United States has granted favoured trading status to select sub-Saharan African countries for certain goods, including textiles and clothing. Lesotho has been a major beneficiary of this and is now the regions biggest supplier of these goods to the US. The expiry of these provisions in 2015, then, represents a major potential threat of Lesotho’s economy. Other economic resources which show potential, but are not yet fully developed, include mineral extraction and hydro-electric power. [4]

Civil society and media

The civil and political rights situation of Lesotho has improved in recent years, with the largely peaceful transition of power after the 2012 elections helping elevate the country's rating from “partially free” to “free” on Freedom House’s world index. There are few legal restriction on media or civil society activity and there seems to be a general consensus amongst lawmakers in favour of preserving this situation - a recent bill seeking to restrict freedom of assembly, for example, only passed after several amendments to limit its impact. At the same time, however, the penalties for libel or defamation are severe and ministers of state have a history of bringing cases against journalists for critical coverage. Additionally, journalists have at times been harassed for challenging political or economic interest groups.[5] As of 2013 Lesotho ranks 81st in the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index, slightly down on previous years.[6]

Civil society in Lesotho currently operates largely without restrictions or interference. The relationship between government and civil society has been described as less antagonistic than in many other Southern African countries, with lack of funds or personnel being a bigger problem than hostility from the state.[7] At the same time, however, the impact of civil society has been historically limited and, at times, uncoordinated, leaving concerns about how effective it can genuinely be in holding the state to account.[8]

Child Rights and Human Rights

Lesotho’s human rights record has significantly improved since its return to democracy, but issues do persist. A major ongoing concern is the impact of HIV and AIDS in Lesotho and the associated impact on family life, health, the economy and life expectancy. Lesotho currently has the third highest prevalence of HIV in the world and there have been significant failures identified in the governments handling of the epidemic, controlling the rate of infection and supporting people living with HIV and AIDS. Failures to implement proper access to health care as well as problems in dealing with the secondary effects of the crisis, such as support for children orphaned, have also been identified.[9] Some of the more effective responses have come through combined government and private sector projects, such as the Alafa programme focussed around workers in the textile and garment industry.[10]

Child labour, poor prison conditions and sporadic violence by security forces all remain concerns as well. Widespread poverty and the high number of child headed households have led to a large number of children working in the sometimes hazardous and largely unregulated informal and agricultural sectors.[11] Corporal punishment of children is still permitted in a number of settings, including schools, the home alternative care and in penal institutions. While a 2011 act removed it as a permissible sentence for criminal offences, the same act gave sanction to “justifiable”, presumably physical, chastisement of children in other settings.[12]



Quick Facts

  • Population: 2,216,900 (UNDP, 2012)
  • Population under 18: 970,000 (UNICEF, 2011)
  • Number of internet users: 83,813 (4.3% of the population) (Internet World Stats, 2012)
  • Human Development Index ranking: 158 (UNDP, 2012)
  • Happy Planet Ranking: N/A