A true democracy is not about holding elections but how the right to peaceful assembly, protest and association is encouraged, what happens between elections
In a brief and candid interview the UN SR, Maina Kiai, explains this relatively new and recent mandate, established by the United Nations in 2010 created in recognition of the need to assert the basic democratic rights to peaceful assembly, protest and association, that were being curtailed by states across the world, north and south, democracies and dictatorships.
He accepted that the United Nations label and mandate, with its historical background and some imbalances –even today the United Nations spends just 6 per cent of its budget on the promotion and protection of human rights – is a ‘work in progress’. However, it remains the one and only international body that is consistently evolving a framework to be able to speak to and with states on the evolution of standards for the protection of human rights in general and the rights 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 this interview with Teesta Setalvad of Communalism Combat, taken after an Asia-wide interaction and consultation with activists and organisations, Maina Kiai spoke also of the further impact of this curtailing of this right to peaceful assembly and association across the world by the 10-15 year old phenomenon of ‘the dumbing down of the mainstream media”. This dumbing down has meant that the media was now more concerned with the glamorous and celebrity stories than any with deeper content. The media in a sense was 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 was the basic and fundamental freedoms guaranteed to its peoples, Miana Kiai said that the test of democracy and freedoms is not regular holding and elections but how peaceably 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, 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 are questioning governments. That is their right.
Maina Kiai, who’s four major reports as SR on the rights 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 if a small section turns violent, ought to be to isolate those elements but allow the peaceful protest 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 organisations from Cambodia, Thailand, Nepal. Pakistan, Sri Lanka and India among others shared experiences of their countries. Indian representatives spoke of brute and repressive measures in Chhatisgarh and Jharkand through false and fabricated cases as documented by the Chhatisgarh Bachao Andolan, Chhatisgarh Mukti Morcha, Chhatisgarh PUCL and the Jharkand Mukti Morcha; the decade long anti POSCO agitation that had led to brute repressions against many women villagers in Orissa (represented by the Posco Protirodh Sangram Samitiand Chaasi Mulya Adivasi Sangh) and the over 1000 day 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 been resulting on a 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 north eastern part of India, virtually uninterruptedly since the mid-1950s and in Jammu and Kashmir since the 1990s creates a permanent bar against peaceful assembly and protest. In Mizoram certain amendments to the law are trying to prevent organisations from registration, too.
The one sided action of governments, against activists who are vocal on political rights of all including other oppressed populations while right wing, supremacist and violent mob frenzy by groups affiliated to the central ruling dispensation were often allowed unchecked has created a further imbalance within Indian democracy.
Finally, the SR said that mature and evolving states, especially representative democracies need to put into place systems and structures where peoples, movements and organisations can dialogue with states and governments to be heard. Peaceful means are a critical means to channelise dissent. It is when peaceful means are curtailed that non violent means are abandoned, Miana Kiai cautioned, Therefore governments must listen so that they become responsive. India, which is today the world’s largest democracy should also be at the vanguard for the protection and respecter of human rights in their every facet.
When asked specifically about the issue of the speedy clearances being given to mega projects, often disregarding livelihood and environmental concerns, the Special rapporteur said that history had shown, especially during the frenetic phases of industrialization in the past that societies had paid huge costs in terms of human welfare and environmental protection. Smart and sustainable development demands that we show we have learnt from these bitter lessons from our collective past.
UN SR Maina Kiai had hoped to visit India officially and is still hopeful that the government of India will soon encourage an official mission. The mandate and mission of this SR can be understood from http://freeassembly.net