Shrinking civic space was one of the defining human rights issues of 2015, according to Maina Kiai, UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to Freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, in his report, 2015: The Year in Assembly and Association Rights. In many parts of the world in 2016, however, that space is largely gone. “The challenge for 2016 and beyond is not simply to reverse the trend; we are in a crisis, and we need to re-order our approaches to address this crisis and get that space back,” he says.
Last year, government responses to civil society were colored with fear, Kiai says. Often, this is a fear of terrorism. Laws restricting assembly and association have many times been passed without discussion or input. Civil society is disproportionately targeted by anti-terrorism laws, Kiai says. It also “faces limited access to the halls of power, and experiences exponentially higher levels of government surveillance and hostility,” he noted.
In Kenya, for example, the government froze the bank accounts of two prominent human rights organizations in the country’s coastal region, accusing them of supporting terrorism. The offices of the two organizations – Muslims for Human Rights (Muhuri) and HAKI Africa – were also raided as part of what the Government described as a tax audit. The moves came shortly after a terrorist attack at a University in the Kenyan city of Garissa which left 147 people dead. Civil society groups worldwide condemned the crackdown, with one calling it a “wholly unjustifiable attempt to disrupt [the organizations’] legitimate work.” The Special Rapporteur is currently a board member of Muhuri.
In the report and elsewhere, Kiai calls on nations to adopt sectoral equity between businesses and associations – a “fair, transparent and impartial approach in which the regulation of each sector is grounded in international law, standards and norms.”
Read the full report here.