Malawi Human Rights Commission backs peaceful demo: ‘It’s constitutional’

The  state-funded Malawi Human Right Commission (MHRC) has told government and the country’s police service not to make any attempts to stop the January 17 demonstrations and said instead state agents should ensure that there is enough security during the demonstrations to avoid a repeat of July 20, 2011.

Twenty people lost their lives and property worth millions of kwachas was damaged after the demonstrations went out of control culminating into a free for all looting and clashes between the marchers and the Police.

 MHRC chairperson Sophie Kalinde asked all parties involved including the organisers to ensure that the demonstrations do not “replicate the disastrous consequences of July 20, 2011”

The body says the right to assemble and hold demonstrations peacefully and unarmed is a human right and fundamental freedom protected under Section 38 of the Constitution, giving a boost to organisers to  demonstrations against economic hardship in Malawi.

“The Commission condemns the display of lack of respect for the right…by some concerned parties, that has characterized the period running up to the planned demonstrations,” MHRC said in a statement made available to Nyasa Times.

MHRC then warned the general public, authorities and people opposed to the demonstrations to exercise tolerance and desist from inflammatory remarks and any attempts aimed at dissuading people in favor of the demonstrations from participation in the demonstrations.

“The Commission calls upon government to ensure that the organisers of the demonstrations are not unlawfully prevented or prohibited from holding such demonstrations provided the planned demonstrations have followed procedures prescribed by law,” said Kalinde in a statement released on Monday.

Recently, vendors in Mzuzu warned organizers Consumers Association of Malawi (CAMA) not to pass by or use any of their 17 markets saying if they do so they will be responsible for the consequences.

Mrs Sophie Asimenye Kalinde: MHRC chair says human rights must be exercised

The vendors did not specify what action they will do if CAMA defy the directive but said they will be very alert on the day. This comes after reports that a government minister has funded the vendors and some youth for beer parties on January 17 to act against protestors.

“The general public must ensure at all times that human rights, including the right to assemble and hold peaceful and unarmed demonstrations, are exercised with due regard and observance of the attendant responsibilities,” MHRC Chairperson Sophie Asimenye Kalinde said.

The Commission observed that the emerging developments to some extent replicate the trends that led to the disastrous consequences of the 20th July, 2011 demonstrations as exemplified by the deaths of 20 people.

“In particular, the Commission has noted with concern that relevant duty bearers including some public officials and some political players have made statements that display lack of respect for the right,” Kalinde said.

MHRC has since called upon government to ensure that the organizers of the 17th January, 2013 demonstrations are not unlawfully prevented or prohibited from holding such demonstrations provided the planned demonstrations have followed procedures prescribed by law.

She said the right to assemble and hold demonstrations is a human right and fundamental freedom protected under the Constitution and other international instruments.

 “The right is an essential component of democracy and indispensable to the full enjoyment of human rights.  Like all human rights and fundamental freedoms, the right should be respected and upheld by all duty bearers including government as provided for in the Constitution and relevant international human rights treaties ratified by Malawi,” she said.
 Kalinde said while this right is not absolute, the standards for limitations of the right do not sanction the absolute and undue curtailment.
 She  said the fact that some sectors do not subscribe to the reasons for any demonstrations does not in itself invalidate the right.
 To this effect she added that authorities and concerned parties are under a duty not to subject any persons to any threats or acts of violence, harassment, persecution, intimidation or reprisals solely on the grounds that such persons intend to hold peaceful demonstrations or participating in the actual demonstrations.
 Kalinde also said the current calls for dialogue should not be a guise for imposition of restriction for people to hold the demonstrations.
  She , however, also cautioned the organisers of the demonstrations that the right to assemble and hold demonstrations should not be an excuse to commit violence.
Kalinde said to ensure peaceful demonstrations it is crucial that the police take full responsibility to prepare for the demonstrations.

MHRC said the role of the media is also critical in imparting accurate information relating to the issues at stake to the general public, in a manner that is not biased, sensationalistic and does not promote propaganda.

“The Commission has observed that, so far, the coverage of the issues relating to the demonstrations on the part of the public broadcaster, Malawi Broadcasting Corporation, has tended to lean towards coverage of those opposing the planned demonstrations.

“Therefore we urge MBC, as per its statutory obligations, to accurately cover the issues relating to the demonstrations and avoid biased coverage, or reporting in ways that could reasonably raise the perception of bias,” she cautioned.

  This is the first time that the Commission has spoken on the January 17 demonstrations. Coincidentally Consumer Association of Malawi (Cama) Executive Director John Kapito who is spearheading the call for the demonstrations chaired the Commission in the last two years.
During his term the Commission has also been vocal and always at loggerheads with late Bingu wa Mutharika’s government on issues of human rights.

CAMA  issued a six-point petition to be presented to the President, raising issues of their concerns.

The points included immediate stop of flotation of the kwacha, a freeze on foreign and local travel by the President, her Vice-President Khumbo Kachali and the Cabinet, declaration of assets by the President and the trimming of the Cabinet.

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