A true democracy is not about holding elections but how the right to peaceful assembly, protest and association is encouraged

special rapporteur
Click on the image to watch the interview

Teesta Setelvad* talks to United Nations special rapporteur Maina Kiai

In a brief and candid interview, the United Nations (UN) special rapporteur Maina Kiai has explained this relatively new and recent mandate, established by the United Nations in 2010, for recognition of the need to assert the basic democratic rights to peaceful assembly, protest and association, curtailed by states across the world, in both North and South, democracies and dictatorships. Kiai accepted that the UN label and mandate, given its historical background and some imbalances, even today spends just six per cent of its budget on the promotion and protection of human rights. The UN is a in a “state of progress”, so to say, when it comes to human rights.

However, the fact is, the UN remains one and only international body that is consistently evolving a framework to be able to speak to with states on the evolution of standards for the protection of human rights in general, and the right to freedom of peaceful assembly, protest and association, in particular. The reports and commentaries by the special rapporteurs are thoroughly researched and credible, and if and when questions are put to states, this is a movement towards general accountability.

In the interview taken after an Asia-wide interaction and consultation with activists and organizations, Maina Kiai spoke also of the impact of efforts to curtail of the right to peaceful assembly and association across the world. Over the last 10-15 years a phenomenon called ‘the dumbing down of the mainstream media” has taken shape. This “dumbing down” has meant that the media is now more concerned with glamorous and celebrity stories than with deeper content. The media in a sense is betraying itself through this process, he opined, instead of keeping true and consistent with the basic ideals of democratic functioning, which is “informing, educating and empowering.” It is because of this abdication of the mainstream media’s role worldwide that the fair amplification of human rights protests has been hampered.

Elaborating on why and how the test of a real democracy is basic and fundamental freedoms guaranteed to its peoples, Miana Kiai said that the test of democracy and freedoms cannot be confined to regular holding of elections, but how peacefully a state allows the freedom of assembly and of association, and how freely people are allowed to express dissent. Whether a country is actually democratic or not is not reflected by whether it holds regular elections – but whether it allows and actually facilitates peaceful association, and allows people to organize into associations without hindrance even if they are challenging government policies. The key word is “peaceful”. They must be allowed the space to operate even if they question governments. That is their right.

Maina Kiai, whose four major reports as special rapporteur on the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association have set elaborate international standards for states since 2011, further elaborated that the role of governments during protests, even when a small section turns violent, ought to be to isolate those elements and allow the peaceful protests to continue. The only way a government can truly understand how its people are feelings is through peaceful assembly and protest, and if this right is given space to operate.

Through the consultation, activists and organizations from Cambodia, Thailand, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and India, among other states, shared their experiences. Indian representatives spoke of brute and repressive measures in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand through false and fabricated cases, as documented by the Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan, the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha, and the Chhatisgarh People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL). There is also the decade-long anti-POSCO agitation that led to brute repression of women villagers in Orissa (represented by the POSCO Protirodh Sangram Samitiand Chaasi Mulya Adivasi Sangh) and the over 1,000 days of on-going protest against the Koodankulum nuclear plant in the southern tip of India.

The skewed use of Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code by authorities and administrations has resulted in severe curb of the right to free and peaceful assembly and association. Sections of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) applied in Manipur and other states in the northeastern part of India, virtually uninterruptedly since mid-1950s, and in Jammu & Kashmir since the 1990s create a permanent bar against peaceful assembly and protest. In Mizoram certain amendments to the law are trying to prevent organizations from registering their protests.

One-sided action of governments against activists, who are vocal on political rights of all, including other oppressed populations, continue unabated amidst right-wing, supremacist and violent mob frenzy by groups affiliated to the central ruling dispensation. This creates a further imbalance in Indian democracy.

Finally, the special rapporteur said that mature and evolving states, especially representative democracies, need to put into place systems and structures where peoples, movements and organizations can dialogue with states and governments to be heard. Peaceful means are a critical means to channelize dissent. It is when peaceful means are curtailed that non-violent means are abandoned, Miana Kiai cautioned. Therefore, governments must listen, and should become responsive. India, which is today the world’s largest democracy, should also be in the vanguard for the protection of and respect to human rights.

When asked about the issue of the speedy clearance being given to mega projects, often disregarding livelihood and environmental concerns, the special rapporteur said that history has shown, especially during the frenetic phases of industrialization in the past, that societies pay huge costs in terms of human welfare and environmental protection. Smart and sustainable development demands that we demonstrate that we have learnt from the bitter lessons from our collective past. Kiai hopes to visit India officially and hopes that the Government of India responds positively to her official mission. The mandate and mission of the special rapporteur can be seen at http://freeassembly.net.

*Prominent social activist. Interview for  HILLELE TV and www.sabrang.com. It can be seen online by clicking https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YiltX7Qr7bI

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