State supported anti-rights groups gaining ground

By Andrew Firmin & Sylvia Mbataru

Human rights have always been contested, and groups that attack human rights are nothing new. But what is new is that extremist and ultra-conservative groups are now working with and being sheltered by the state.

This was one of the key points raised during a dialogue with Kenyan civil society held in Nairobi in July 2019. The backdrop to the dialogue was CIVICUS’ current research on the impacts of anti-rights groups on civil society, to be published in November 2019. Our research aims to understand how anti-rights groups are organising and being supported, what tactics they use to attack human rights and how civil society can respond to this growing threat.

Nairobi dialogues attest to hardline groups linked to state structures

Participants in the Nairobi dialogue attested to the real challenges they face from hardline groups closely linked to state structures and politicians. They identified that in some cases, state agents are clearly working through proxy organisations to attack rights, and powerful political leaders are mobilising criminal gangs. Rather than uphold rights, the police are frequently on the side of these criminal gangs. Corrupt business interests are also attacking communities and activists who demand rights and environmental protection. Anti-rights groups are taking succour from political leaders who promote hatred and exclusion. In Kenya, participants noted that dominant political elites clearly have a campaign of publicly vilifying civil society, and this encourages others to attack.

Some state structures are even accused of having made it easier for anti-rights groups to operate, while simultaneously making it harder for legitimate groups that stand for human rights to do so. The government’s failure to implement the enabling provisions of the 2013 Public Benefits Organisation Act, despite repeated civil society advocacy, as well as bureaucratic restrictions in registration of civil society groups that represent vulnerable groups, remain a crucial area of concern and indicate the generally shabby treatment of civil society by those who hold political power.

Vulnerable and excluded groups, it was observed, are on the frontline of violence. They are attacked first and most frequently, and often as a prelude to attacks on civil society as a whole. Proxy groups often attack LGBTQI rights. Meanwhile, appeals to tradition and culture, defined narrowly and exclusively rather than broadly and inclusively, are used as a pretext for the repression of women and girls.

High-profile bloggers and journalists justify attacks on rights

Participants also pointed to a worrying trend where some high-profile bloggers and journalists are using the platform offered by their status to justify attacks on rights, sending a reminder of how the freedom of expression, a key right for us all, can be contested and abused in the service of hate. So much online space, which once offered such promise, has been captured to propagate messages that divide and polarise. At the same time, journalistic voices that stand for human rights are being silenced and stifled because of state capture.

The story is, however, also one of civil society response, to defend those under attack, make a case with the public as to why rights matter and work to hold those liable for abuses to account. As civil society, participants also asked themselves what they could be doing better.

Need to change the way we connect with concerns

Perhaps our old models, of how we organise ourselves and are resourced, need to change, and as part of this, we need to rethink how best international civil society can support and enable local civil society response. We need to learn from the mobilising power and energy of people’s protests – seen most recently in Hong Kong – and understand how to spark and sustain that energy. Because the messages of anti-rights groups find resonance with many people, we need to change the way we connect with, listen to and understand concerns at the community level. And we need to put aside our differences to offer a collective response.

CIVICUS members are holding dialogues and contributing to this research in a range of other ways. If you’d like to make your voice heard in our research, please contact .