It is unlikely that more than a few hundred people in the UK have heard of or met Maina Kiai, however he has just undertaken a 4 day visit and the conclusions he has come to as a result of his visit should challenge all of us, and shame our Government. Sadly our Government acts as if it is beyond shame based on the statements from at least two well known Conservative MPs, but we can try to change that. Maina Kiai is a lawyer and Kenyan human rights activist who currently serves as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association. His visit to the UK was to assess the health of our nations civil society and was a follow up to a similar visit he made in January 2013. Although there are some positive outcomes from his visit, speaking in Geneva last week he said “I am concerned about a series of separate measures by the Government – some implemented and others proposed – which, put together, suggest that the Government has a negative view of civil society. These moves have, in many instances, been subtle and gradual, but they are unmistakable and alarming,” He also raised concerns about the lobbying or gagging bill that I have written about extensively referring to the chilling effect of the Act on the work of charities during election periods, with many opting for silence on issues they work on. A seperate but equally insidious rule is the clause which from next April will be inserted in all Government grant agreements including those from local Government, prohibiting funds from being used to lobby Government, a decision which he suggests has caused confusion and uncertainty within the sector. “It is far from clear what mischief the clause intends to address or what activities are envisioned as constituting ‘influence or attempting to influence government’, but it is clear that this is being read by Charities as an effort to further silence them if they receive Government funds,”.
In case this report should be seen as all bad news for Britain, he explained that “I appreciate that the Government has made efforts to address some of the recommendations I made three years ago.” However there are also recommendations that have not been heeded. Perhaps most disturbing is not the impact that our Government is having on our own shores, but the potential for more extreme injustices to be outworked in other nations. “Many people around the world look to the UK as a model for democracy and human rights. The world notices when this country takes positive steps to strengthen its practice of human rights. But it notices even more when it moves in the opposite direction – restricting the space for democracy and human rights.” it is for this reason that we need to challenge and engage with our Government to ensure that they don’t take an inch, leaving other less benign Governments to take a mile. In responding to the various attempts to gag Charities Maina Kiai stated “Beyond the UK’s borders, these measures are likely to have serious ramifications if adopted by less democratic states whose intention is to repress civil society. It is imperative that the same standards that the UK calls for internationally on civil society space are implemented domestically.”
The response from the Government will probably not be heard for some weeks, but according to two MPs the views of Mr Kiai are not welcome. Former Cabinet minister Sir Eric Pickles said: “Sometimes when you say something stupid while visiting another country it’s better to stay quiet. Britain is a free country but citizens have a right to be protected from the over-zealous use of trade union powers affecting our daily lives.” meanwhile Philip Davies MP, a member of the Commons Justice Select Committee and someone who regularly uses filibusters to block private members bills indicating a severe lack of commitment to simple democracy added: “This lecture on human rights by somebody from Africa is staggering. He should clear off back to his own continent to look at some of the grotesque abuses of human rights that take place on a daily basis led by people like Robert Mugabe.”
Despite the words of these two MPs who have consistently rejected the views of people whose views are different to their own, or perhaps in part because of them, I am grateful to Maina Kiai for visiting our nation and attempting to assess the environment in which we live and work. His judgements are consistent with my own views and experiences based on a number of years and whilst I occasionally say stupid things at home and abroad, I don’t think the charge from Sir Eric sticks. As for the comments from Philip Davies, the whole point of Mr Kiai’s assessment is that Mugabe is watching all we do and uses every decision by our Government to justify his own ends. The challenge for those of us who do recognise our role in civil society is to respond to his recommendations, knowing that our Government needs more than a few words to change its behaviour.