Two human rights groups, the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR) and Centre for the Development of People (Cedep), recently asked President Peter Mutharika to provide assurances of the State’s protection to human rights defenders and critics of the regime. EPHRAIM NYONDO caught up with CHRR advocacy coordinator Makhumbo Munthali to elaborate on this and other human rights issues.
: Who are human rights defenders?
: Human rights defenders may be involved in action to secure accountability and to end impunity, and also strengthen good governance. Broadly speaking, human rights defenders are found everywhere. They are not only found in NGOs [non-governmental organisations]. You see human rights defenders in the media, international organisations, academia, non-governmental organisations, churches, villages, politics, legal fraternity, and many other places. These are men and women, groups and associations contributing to the promotion, protection and defence of human rights and fundamental freedoms of people and individuals.
: Recently, we saw your organisation in partnership with Cedep calling on President Mutharika to provide assurances of the State’s protection to human rights defenders and critics of the regime. Why such calls?
: As human rights and good governance defenders, we were concerned with recent events that have characterised our political, socio-economic landscape following PAC’s [Public Affairs Committee] 4th All-Inclusive Stakeholders meeting which seemed to suggest that the country was taking the wrong direction in as far as enjoyment of civil liberties is concerned. We noted with great concern some vestiges of intolerance to criticism by the current regime which did not only portray the picture of a leadership which accorded itself immunity to criticism, but also posed serious threats to the work of human rights defenders, public intellectuals, and the critics of the regime. The politically-motivated treason and sedition charges against opposition leaders, the “systematically” orchestrated violence at the opposition solidarity rally in Mzuzu, and government’s reaction to claims of death threats on Chancellor College’s Professor Blessings Chinsinga, among other things, did not reflect well on the country’s political atmosphere. It was, therefore, premised on such a context and also informed
by our 2011-2012 experience that we thought it was important for the President and his government to provide assurance of the State’s protection of human rights defenders, public intellectuals, opposition leaders and the critics of the regime in a context where criticising government was fast becoming a crime.
Q: Don’t you think the existing legal, institutional and policy framework is adequate for the protection of human rights defenders?
A: It is important to note that while there are some elements within our legal, institutional and policy framework which promote and protect the work of people who are involved in promoting and defending human rights and good governance, there are some elements which seem to pose challenges to the work of human rights defenders in the country. The Malawi Constitution has a progressive Bill of Rights, and the mandate conferred on the Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC) as per Section 129 to promote and protect human rights and investigate all violations of human rights just to mention a few are some of the positive steps towards the protection of human rights defenders. However, the existence of defamation laws, the “politicisation” of NGO Board and National Intelligence Bureau against NGOs deemed critical of government and critics of the regime respectively and the continued failure to enact the Access to Information Bill are retrogressive in the protection of human rights defenders in the country.
:Any recommendation to government on human rights defenders’ protection?
: While human rights enjoy a high level of recognition and protection in the Constitution, it is important for Malawi to consider enacting a specific law to support and protect human rights defenders in the country which should be in accordance with the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders.
Such a law should oblige the State to investigate and pursue accountability for any violations of the rights of defenders, their families and associate; provide for access to effective remedy for victims; and also mandate research and analysis on threats and attacks against human rights defenders with a view to identifying underlying and causative factors and making recommendations aimed at prevention and at the promotion of an enabling environment. Specific laws on human rights defenders could assist not only to provide formal legal protection to their work, but also to give official recognition to the legitimacy of the work of human rights defenders, educate law enforcement officers, public officials and the public at large about the importance of defenders’ work and the protection thereof. n