Maina Kiai: "Our Ideas keep living on"

Maina Kiai, Sonderberichterstatter der Vereinten Nationen, Nairobi/Genf

Since 2011 Maina Kiai  is the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association. Furthermore Kiai is also active in human rights work for the NGO Inform Action in Kenya. He is promoting civil society actions on a global level and wishes for more solidarity and active citizenship. In this interview with Christine Meissler he explains, why he – like many more activists – never will give up fighting for democracy and human rights.

Christine Meissler: We are witnessing a very challenging time for human rights at the moment. On a global scale the space for civil society is continuously shrinking in more and more countries. What are you focusing on in your work right now?

Maina Kiai: My next report to the Human Rights Council, in June, will explore fundamentalism and its effect on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association. But the definition of “fundamentalism” is not what you might expect. The report is not about terrorism, extremism or even religious fundamentalism – though it will touch on all of those issues.

The report instead looks at fundamentalism as a much broader concept, to include any movements – not simply religious ones – that advocate strict and literal adherence to a set of basic beliefs or principles. Adherence to the principles of free market capitalism, for example, can be deemed “market fundamentalism.” The unbending belief in the superiority of one ethnic group or tribe could be called “nationalist” or “cultural” fundamentalism.

We are also not concerned with the beliefs themselves, per se. People have a protected right to believe what they wish. Rather, we’re concerned with fundamentalism in action: How do fundamentalist ideologies motivate violations of assembly and association rights? And how are fundamentalist ideologies abused by power to suppress the rights? The ideal is to make us all a bit less fundamentalist, and to foster more tolerance of difference – because modern societies need that kind of tolerance in order to be their best.

The report will also look at how important assembly and association rights are in preventing and combatting extremism – which can of course arise from fundamentalism, among other things. We know that denying people space for peaceful, legal and constructive engagement does not make their feelings of anger, despair or dissatisfaction go away. It simply outlaws public expression of these feelings. It pushes them underground and out of view, where they are liable to violent. Extremism thrives in such environments. It has a harder time taking hold in societies where people have the space to engage and effect peaceful change.

I will also be presenting reports on my country visits to South Korea and Chile in June. And we have a country mission to the United States Coming up in July. It’s a busy period!

What are the most important challenges in your work as UN Special Rapporteur? Do you sometimes feel like giving up your position as UN Special Rapporteur?

Our overriding challenge is to stem the tide of closing space for people to engage with their democracies. The space is closing in many places and in a number of different ways – each requires its own strategy and battle. But the overall trend is clear: We are clearly in the midst of a massive global conflict. Governments are pushing back citizen engagement and trying to tighten their grip on power. Ordinary people, meanwhile, are more informed these days and are seeing through the nonsense and are getting angrier and angrier. They need an outlet. Shutting off these outlets – which is the strategy that many governments are adopting – does not bode well for anyone: It’s like locking the lid on a pressure cooker just as the heat is increasing. It will eventually blow.

These are extremely interesting times for assembly and association rights and for the evolution of democracy. It can be challenging as well – but I would never consider giving up. I have been doing this all my life, before I took up this mandate, and I will continue after my mandate expires. Those of us defending democracy are on the right side of history. I firmly believe that what we don’t accomplish today can be accomplished tomorrow. But it requires us to continually lay the groundwork for change. If we don’t, future generations are doomed to the same fate. People may die, but movements and ideas live on.

You are also co-director of a civil society organisation in Kenya, InformAction. What are you trying to do as part of the civil society in Kenya? What experiences did give you particular frustration? What experience particular hope?

Kenya certainly hasn’t been immune to the trend of closing democratic space. InformAction’s work seeks to expand it by using film and community discussions to educate people on issues that affect them. In a nutshell, we make films about human rights and social justice, screen them to rural and marginalized people that ordinarily might not have access to such information, and lead discussions about how they can take action to better their lives. We then proceed to facilitate the local communities take action as they deem fit and appropriate. The idea is to get ordinary people to stand up to power and speak truth to power as the most important way for them to claim and enjoy their rights.

I see this as building on my previous work on corruption, accountability, rule of law and constitutional reform. Kenya made some great strides in the early 2000s, including the drafting of a new constitution that I’m proud to have contributed to. But the situation had degraded badly since. It’s a reminder that our work in building democracy doesn’t stop at the technical level. A country can have the best constitution in the world, but it will be worthless if you don’t have people engaged, equipped and inspired to defend that constitution.

What kind of support for civil society under threat is most needed?

There are many things. Civil society organizations themselves need to continue monitoring, documenting, speaking out and pressuring leaders. They also need to do a better job in terms of solidarity – domestically, regionally, internationally, and across sectors. Development NGOs, for example, need to step up when human rights NGOs are targeted for harassment by the government. It makes sense because their larger interests – as an entity protected by the right to freedom of association – are ultimately at stake too.

The business community needs to take a similar approach. It’s in their best interest to operate in societies that are open, transparent, free, and ruled by law. If you look at the World Bank’s top 50 countries for doing business, most of them also rank in the top 50 freest countries. It’s not rocket science: Countries with a vibrant civil society are guaranteed to be better places for doing business. The corporate world needs to step up and stand up for civil society.

The international community – at least those who agree that democratic space is worth fighting for – need to become more comfortable in their own skin and stand up for democracy and human rights. And these values need to be elevated to the same level as other strategic national interests. There’s no need to apologize for promoting democratic values. People everywhere overwhelmingly want democracy, freedom and the prosperity that comes with that. They look to certain countries as models; these countries need to live up to these expectations.

Donors who fund things like democracy and human rights also have a role to play. We’re in a new era, and the rules of the game have changed. Their policies should change as well. There may be a place for project-based funding, logframes, three-year strategic plans and so on. But flexibility is more important at the moment. Activists need core funding, freedom to adapt their programs to changing circumstances, and fewer administrative burdens. Activists need freedom to be activists, not technocrats.

Is there something individuals can do as well?

One of the best things that individuals can do is to get out and exercise their rights. Join a protest, start a discussion group, form an association or join a labor union. Rights are like muscles – they tend to waste away if they’re not exercised. Despite what’s happening these days, I think there’s shocking amount of complacency. People often fail to appreciate the importance of human rights until they’re taken away – and by then it’s too late.

This article is part of our dossier "Squeezed – Spaces for Civil Society".