The events of 2015 unfolded as another epic, global tug-of-war over the role that assembly and association rights play in our world today.
At certain times and in some places, they appeared inexorable – the lifeblood of citizen movements and a vehicle for the voices of ordinary people. At others, they were under siege, on the verge of going extinct.
On the one hand, the year saw an emphatic continuation of the global trend of massive protest movements. Activists in dozens of countries successfully harnessed public discontent, drew unprecedented numbers to rallies and commanded attention, both at home and abroad. The common thread was, as with 2014, people’s anger over government abuse of power.
Burundi exploded with anti-government protests after Pierre Nkurunziza announced he would be running for a third term that most said was illegal; conflict continued after he won that third term.
People in Brazil, Malaysia, Moldova and elsewhere took to the streets in extraordinary numbers to protest against government corruption. And in Guatemala, a similar movement succeeded in ousting the President.
The Republic of Korea, Japan, the United States of America and South Africa saw huge gatherings over social issues ranging from labor policies to militarization to police brutality to education. And Spanish activists got creative by demonstrating in the form of holograms after their government passed a law that severely restricted protests around government buildings.
Government reactions to many of these developments, however, were as emphatically brutal as in 2014 – in most cases centered around repressing assembly rights rather than listening to protesters’ grievances.
In the realm of association rights, meanwhile, it became clear that the global trend of repressive NGO laws is far from over. Cambodia and Kazakhstan both passed troubling laws which threaten to snuff out independent civil society. Uganda, Bangladesh, China, Kenya, Mauritania and others were considering laws that could do the same.
Again, government responses to civil society voices were more often colored with fear than respect. In some cases, NGO laws were passed without any meaningful consultation with civil society, in stark contrast to how these same governments consider laws governing the business sector (as detailed by the Special Rapporteur in his 2015 report to the General Assembly).
But there were beacons of hope: The Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet – a group of civil society organizations – was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in October for its “decisive contribution to the building of a pluralistic democracy in Tunisia.” Such an affirmation of civil society’s critical role in fostering peace and stability could not have come at a more important time.
And France saw the largest public gatherings in its history in response to terrorist attacks in January – solidarity gatherings that recalled the importance that peaceful assemblies play in uniting us, bridging our differences, and making us stronger in the face of adversity.
Then there were the stories of bravery: innumerable instances where activists stood up for their fundamental rights, went to prison, suffered physical violence, and sometimes even paid the ultimate price. Their voices were sometimes obscured by the raucous oppression that marked 2015, but they can rest assured – each of their salvos made it clear that tyranny is not part of the human condition.
These stories and more are summarized in this report, Special Rapporteur Maina Kiai’s second “yearbook” of assembly and association rights – a year-end summary of the major developments of 2015, including important news events and the key activities of his mandate.
Funding for the production of this report was provided by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It is not published by the United Nations, and its content does not reflect the official position of the United Nations.