Baldwin Chiyamwaka is the new The Human Rights Committee national coordinator. He assumes the position amid a polarising nationwide debate on sexual orientation and gay rights and tells Paida Mpaso areas he will direct his energy in promoting human rights issues.
Tell us a bit about yourself?
I am one of the ordinary Malawians. Perhaps, I can describe myself as a sort of broad skilled person, coming from an education, development administration, communication and business administration specialities and professional backgrounds. I have worked in government, both local and international non-governmental organisations (NGOs).
What direction is HRCC taking?
The Human Rights Consultative Committee (HRCC) has come from far since its establishment in July 1995. Over the past 18 years, HRCC has successfully responded to the need for driving the democratisation process and creating awareness on constitutional and human rights issues; [it has] harmonised the interventions of civil society organisations working on human rights; promoted civil and political rights; advocated the protection and promotion of human rights and enhanced the monitoring, documenting and reporting of issues on human rights.
HRCC will now direct its energies on the development agenda. With our emphasis on community-based approaches and community participation in policy development and implementation, HRCC has taken it upon itself to relate its human rights agenda with the very fundamental right to development. HRCC realises that information and awareness pertaining to the right to development is not common place in Malawi societies, owing in part to our political history and earlier emphasis on civil and political rights.
What’s your personal view about gay rights?
I have a Christian world view and much of my personal philosophy is drawn from that. One value I hold is that people have freewill and, therefore, make their personal choices based on the information, knowledge and experiences they have. I believe in democracy and freedoms, too. Therefore, sexual orientation, in my opinion are a matter of personal choice.
How would you want the church to handle gay rights issues?
There are variations within the church based on different theological views with regards to gay rights. I personally do understand this as a controversial issue which must be understood within a global perspective and broader value and belief system.
Considering the critical role the church play and the influence it has in Malawi, the church ought to take a leading role and make its position clear in this debate. However, the church should do this within the ambit of democracy where views of other sections of the Malawian society must also be heard and tolerated.
We could draw examples from the way the debate on HIV and Aids and family planning issues have been handled in the past in relation to faith-based communities.
It is also important for the church to define the times we are living in and see which causes are worth fighting since some of these things with time are inevitable. Church should thus focus on evangelism.
How do you assess the current government in terms of respecting human rights?
I have always said that in the absence of a local human rights assessment framework it is often difficult to rate a particular government at a particular time in terms of its performance on human rights. This may not be too difficult to comment. There is a considerable improvement in the observance of human rights in Malawi currently and I think for a long time, we haven’t enjoyed our rights a greater measure as we are currently doing.
However, the effects of the devaluation and the scarcity of maize grain are marring Malawi’s human rights performance locally. People’s lack of access to basic commodities, including food is a clear violation of people’s rights. The government must be very careful to strike a proper balance between addressing economic challenges and avoiding violating rights in the process.
How do you look at the relationship between govt and CSOs in terms of policy dialogue?
The CSOs [civil society organisations] are currently encouraging the dialogue process as a way forward. CSOs use different approaches depending on the governance situation. We want the dialogue roadmap that was drawn last year during the UNDP [United Nations Development Programme] facilitated dialogue process following the July 20 demonstrations to be the way forward.
However, there is a danger that government may consider this as soft approach and think the CSOs have gone to bed and, therefore, go to town with all sorts of violations. We will be vigilant. Already signs of the old tendencies are emerging from clashes seen between political parties and the police and party supporters. Such acts will not be tolerated.
How can the relation be improved?
To a greater or lesser extent across many countries of the world, the relationship between government and the civil society sector face attitudinal challenges which get in the way of a smooth and mutually supportive working relationship. The quality of the relations sometimes change over time becoming better or worse, love or hate due to a variety of factors such as politics, individuals, development partners’ pressure, perhaps experience of particular development problems. Factors like these have affected government-CSO relations in Malawi.
CSOs often feel used and wanted only when the government needs support to resolve a crisis. A typical example was the relationship between CSOs and the DPP government where during the late President Bingu’s first term when they had a fledgling minority in Parliament; CSOs were very supportive to have the budget passed. Later during the second term when DPP had a massive majority in Parliament the government became a bully of the Civil Society.