Africans have the right to protest, says Maina Kiai, the first United Nations special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association. “We have the ability to change our governments peacefully.”
By M.A. and Sophie van Leeuwen, The Hague
Who funds you?
I’m funded by states, the members of the UN. They pay for our travel and our expenses. That’s it. We work for free. We’re independent from the UN-staff.
In 2011, I was chosen by the governments of the world as their very special rapporteur. Now I advise countries on the issue of peaceful assembly and of association.
What is your biggest fear?
The shrinking space for civil society to operate. The mandate was created out of concern that states were reducing the space of civil society, their right to associate.
There was the Arab spring that put into focus the issues of peaceful assembly. States have become very clever in restricting NGO’s and civil society, like for example a rigorous application process or restricting funding.
What is your biggest challenge in Africa?
Many governments hesitate to allow protests. They get nervous as soon as people go to public spaces. They fear what’s going to happen.
For a state that’s committed to serve its citizens, it is crucial to hear what people say and think. You should in fact encourage people to come out because then you have an unfiltered way of hearing what people think and want.
But if you close down the right of people to protest and to assemble peacefully, they are forced to think of other ways in which they can challenge the state. And those things are not necessarily peaceful, nor are they thing that you would desire.
Aren’t you risking an African Spring?
What’s wrong with a Spring? Legitimacy comes direct from the people. All our governments have accepted the international convention on civil and political rights. That gives us the right to express ourselves, and the ability to change our governments peacefully.
A Spring can fail… Take Libya and Egypt.
A Spring is a Spring. It’s an expression. People are out there and say: this is what we want. You can’t say that because springs have led to a Libya or an Egypt, therefore let’s not have them. That’s not an argument. That’s like saying: because people get obese let’s stop eating. You don’t do that!
It’s a matter of trusting the people. Human rights are about giving power to the people.
Maina Kiai is a Kenyan lawyer and human rights activist, currently working as UN special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association.