African Civil Society Under Threat: Mary Robinson

Justin Kilcullen Mary Robinson East Africa
The decline of human rights on average across Africa is worrying Mary Robinson, the former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and now a special envoy on climate change for the UN Secretary-General.

Discussing this year’s Ibrahim Index of African Governance, she also underlined the need for more data on climate change. She spoke to AllAfrica from London after the launch of the 2015 index this week.

Is there a particular concern you have about this year’s index?

I have a number of concerns about trends in the index… The first one is that although “participation and rights” as a category has improved, the rights part of it hasn’t. The rights part has shown deterioration on three of the five rights indicators, and in particular the indicator “freedom of association and assembly” is one of the 10 most deteriorated indicators in the entire index since 2011.

That really speaks to me. I keep hearing from African civil society: “The space is closing. We’re finding it more difficult.” The civil society space is really under threat, and it is a worrying indicator.

I’m glad to see that [promotion of] gender [equality] has been growing quite well, though in referring to gender initially Mo Ibrahim [whose foundation sponsors the index] did rightly say [at the launch of the index] that some of it is from a very low base. But interestingly the indicator on gender which is not improving is legislation on violence against women. Now tackling violence against women is one of the things we’ve sought to prioritize, so that was a concern.

And then I did ask at the board meeting, when we had the index presented to us in some detail, about climate change, because it is obviously affecting a lot of countries in Africa. It’s more difficult [to cope with] in parts of Africa because of a lack of resilience, because of vulnerability to climate shocks, and we don’t have… data that would give us a proper sense of that… The research staff are clearly very keen to see if they can find more data.

The results for Rwanda and Ethiopia show that their performance in participation and human rights is way down on that in other areas. What do you say to those who suggest that if the economic and development needs of ordinary Africans are being served, what’s the relevance of participation and human rights?

Well, I served more recently as the special envoy of the United Nations Secretary-General to the Great Lakes region, where I had a lot of contact with Rwanda and other countries. I was also in Ethiopia quite a bit. And I have raised these trends as being worrying, because they are not new.

Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland, lamented that politicians can find billions for arms and financial bailouts but not for poverty reduction.
The fact that there is not a robust civil society and robust pluralism politically in both these countries is worrying. I’ve heard a certain tendency to base the model on Singapore, on China, on the basis that “We need to develop and then we can think about possible wider pluralism and democracy and participation.” But it is worrying.

I know President [Paul] Kagame [of Rwanda] very well, and the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, and have raised it with both of them. I try to raise it in a positive, supportive way, rather than – as I might have done if I was High Commissioner for Human Rights – holding them to account. I don’t have a mandate to hold anyone to account in that sense. But these are issues of concern.

Is your concern that economic development, and development in welfare, health and education is not sustainable in the long term unless there is participation?

In our discussion [at the launch of the index] there were very robust African voices making it clear that we need both – democracy and good economic social and other human development. Mohamed ElBaradei [of Egypt, former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency] and Salim Salim [of Tanzania, formerly head of the Organisation of African Unity] asked questions about this specifically… in a very trenchant way. Jay Naidoo [former minister in the Mandela cabinet in South Africa] similarly.

Jay Naidoo made the point that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights talks about the universal… indivisibility of rights – there are not such things as African rights, Asian rights etc. It’s better for human dignity and society as a whole if both can be developed and it’s of some concern when countries pursue policies that don’t adequately open up civil society.

I’ve had meetings in Goma [in the eastern Congo] with civil society, in Kinshasa with civil society, they’ve been jumping on me and asking all kinds of tough questions. And in Rwanda civil society is under real government control, there is no free civil society as such.

What is the importance of good governance to climate change?

It’s an issue now, in a way, of leadership because we’re in a leadership moment on climate, going forward towards [the December climate talks in] Paris. Mo Ibrahim said very publicly that he’s worried that there’s a gap in African leadership [in terms of] a strong voice from the continent.

Africa is responsible for about only about four percent or less of greenhouse gas emissions but it is severely affected as a continent, much more than other places, and increasingly because countries are vulnerable; they are not resilient enough and it’s affecting agriculture.

I came to the climate issue through the lens of human rights and the impact on African countries. [During travel] everywhere I went I heard the same refrain: things are so much worse, and it was about climate shocks. It was about Ellen Johnson Sirleaf telling me that when she grew up in Liberia, the rainy seasons were completely predictable, now she doesn’t know when the rainy season will come or for how long, so she can’t mend her roads.

For many others, it’s about food security, it’s about: “We don’t know when to sow, we don’t know when to harvest, we’ve had our entire harvest gone.” We have flash flooding that is destroying villages and lives, and it’s getting worse. Everybody knows it’s getting worse. So [we need] leadership immediately, but particularly the leadership between now and Paris, of African countries as a whole.

Africa’s least-developed countries need, for example, the replenishment of the least-developed countries fund, which at the moment is virtually empty, yet they have huge adaptation costs over the coming years. I would like to hear these voices more strongly – they know I am an ally because I have a foundation on climate justice, and I speak a lot about the injustice of the impacts of climate change.

Mary Robinson at Yusuf Batil refugee camp

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Source: AllAfrica: Mary Robinson is also a former president of Ireland and a board member of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, which sponsors the index.

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