UN Special Rapporteur Maina Kiai: Governments should listen to their people

Human dignity must be restored. People need to be empowered to stand for their rights. Human rights belong to everyone. These are some of the powerful messages heard at Meta House on the occasion of the International Human Rights Day 2016. On the invitation of Heinrich Böll Foundation local and international guests gathered in the German-Cambodian cultural centre to listen to a lecture on the current human rights situation in the world. The event hosted two speakers who are seldom seen together. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, Maina Kiai, was visiting Cambodia on an academic trip. He has worked in the position for five years and has been involved in the fight against corruption in his home country Kenya for the past 20 years. He was accompanied by Ms Wan-Hea Lee, the Representative of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. She has been working for the UN for over 20 years and has extensive experience of Asia.

In his opening remarks Mr Ali Al-Nasani, the country director of the Heinrich Böll Stiftung Cambodia, raised Francis Fukuyama’s end of history thesis and announced that the predictions of the American scientist and economist could not have been further away from today’s reality. Liberal democracy has not won nationalism but rather different populist movements are on the rise as well as are calls for different countries to leave the European Union. Furthermore, there are numerous conflicts that the international community idly stands by, and Guantanamo Bay remains open violating international human rights standards. In addition Mr Al-Nasani presented the Civic Charter, The Global Framework for People’s Participation, which had been drafted by the Berlin office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation with Mr Maina Kiai’s support.

Although the current situation in world politics does not look too bright, Ms Lee acknowledged that humankind has lived through worse periods. At the same time, she noted, we cannot know if worse is to come. It is possible that a second Arab Spring or genocide will occur in our lifetime. However, while many people are pessimistic about the future, Kiai remains optimistic. In his opinion it is good to remember, for instance, that Hillary Clinton received more popular votes than Donald Trump. Therefore, there is a significant number of people in the United States who did not support the election of the new president.

Kiai also raised the issue of corporatisation of the world. Governments are becoming less and less powerful when businesses become bigger players. One per cent of the global population holds half of the wealth in the world. Lee noted that the one per cent has only emerged in the last few years. Wealth and the power that comes with it are concentrated where decisions are made. In order to tackle the human rights issues with corporations, Kiai calls for a binding agreement. At the same time, civil society organisations should also find ways to make businesses accountable.

The universality of human rights has been questioned countless times. However, according to the two experts, the answer is very simple. Kiai emphasised that human rights are something that human beings are born with – governments cannot give these rights to people. Therefore, human rights are also never internal issues of a state: they are always international issues since there are things that governments are not allowed to do to people.

A thesis that is often raised when human rights universality is being discussed is the ‘Asian values’ argument. According to it, there are different kind of values in Asia and ‘universal’ human rights are in fact not universal and do not fit in the Asian context. However, Lee has observed that many civil society groups in Asia have expressed that they want the rights of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The main topics of the human rights discussion were the rights to peaceful assembly and association. Kiai sees peaceful protesting as a great way for people to show what they think the government should change. According to him, a smart, democratic regime is not scared of protests but listens to them as the leaders need to know what people think. There is always a reason why people protest, he pointed out. Thus, the government needs to address the issue. Real trouble is caused when a government tries to stop a protest or prevents it from taking place. When citizens have no way of expressing their unhappiness, the anger builds up. The built-up anger requires only a trigger to push the situation into chaos. This is what happened with the Arab Spring. It is not in the interest of a government to let the situation reach the point where violence is the answer.

During the Q&A, the question was raised how can people get back their right to peaceful assembly if they have already lost it. Mr Kiai’s answer was simple: one has to take it back, peacefully. If one simply waits for the government to give the right back, one will have to wait for a long time. He acknowledged that taking one’s rights back might be painful and sometimes sacrifices have to be made. People can also try to seek support for their claims from courts or the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. But in the end, these bodies can merely push governments. “Human rights are not given by the international community. Human rights are taken by locals”, Kiai emphasised.

According to Kiai, the Beijing model of development that has recently been adopted by some governments, concentrates on providing food, water, shelter and health but does not allow people to criticise the government. The human rights experts see this as problematic. In Kiai’s opinion development should aim to empower people – only then it is sustainable. Development is not about charity but about human dignity.

The moderator, Ms Kalyanee Mam, reflected on the lecture itself and that people came together. Assembling and discussing issues is a natural thing as well as a right for human beings. And human rights do belong to each and everyone.

Recently various news sources reported that following protests, the US Army has decided to not allow an oil pipeline to be built close to a Native American Indian reservation. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and their supporters had been protesting against the pipeline since April. They had built camps in order to block the oil project. The pipeline threatened the tribe’s sacred lands and their drinking water. This example shows the power of peaceful protest.