Finding equilibrium in the fight for Human Rights

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February 10, 2015

Advocating human rights brings about many challenges, one of those being the search for the right balance between dialogue and confrontation; avoiding the game of blame and shame.

Civil society plays a determining role in democratic evolution, in the construction of the state of rights, and in the protection and defense of citizen’s rights, but it’s a role that demands a lot of responsibility, says René-Claude Niyonkuru, a legal expert on governance and development issues.

It’s an obstacle René-Claude Niyonkuru knows all too well. A former participant of the Equitas IHRTP program in 2007, he also participated in a Training of Trainers held by Equitas in Africa.

Niyonkuru works as a legal expert on governance and development issues for the Association for Peace and Human Rights, an NGO based in Burundi. The group focuses on human rights issues, managing conflict, and local governance.

Niyonkuru participated to an informal discussion at Equitas office in Montreal last Fall. He spoke with the staff about his experience in human rights education, the importance of empowering civil society, and the need for human rights groups to kick start the change they want to see. He says that people need to be active; they need to pay attention to what is going on in their community and stay informed.

He says that civil society organizations need to work to find the proper balance. For one, they need to be involved in the political discussion because issues like health and education are heavily politicized. They also need to distance themselves from political affiliation, because getting too close may delegitimize their cause. It’s about rallying and mobilizing people by creating a discussion which leads to action, and to do that one needs to keep the support alive and thriving.

Equitas: You spoke a little bit about the role of civil society as you have followed it for a number of years, what role does it play in a democracy?

René-Claude Niyonkuru: Civil society is very important. Its role is a determining factor in democratic evolution, in the construction of the state of rights, and in the protection and defense of citizen’s rights. However it’s a role that demands a lot of responsibility. Things need to be clear from the start. Civil society should not be looking to replace the government, nor should it be looking to replace the political opposition, but it’s a counter-power that assures that the rights and freedoms of citizens are respected. It also contributes to the advancement of education, because human rights are a lot better when it’s the people who are asking for them to be respected.

E.: What is the importance of the distance that needs to exist between the government and civil society?

R.-C.N.: It is of paramount importance to take the necessary distance between the government and civil society. Distance does not mean distrust. Impartiality does not mean neutrality; it doesn’t mean that we should not take a position. Fortunately or unfortunately, everything revolves around politics; access to proper health care is political, access to education is political, people’s rights to participate in state affairs are political. However, engaging in politics doesn’t have to be militant. You can be engaging in politics for the purpose of contributing to society and constructing a better plan or perspective for the population.

E.: What is the importance of the role human rights education?

R.-C.N.: I think that human rights education is really, I would say, the spinal cord of all the work surrounding the promotion of human rights. People cannot and should not remain without the knowledge they need when faced with the issues they are living and dealing with at a local level. Human rights education also allows us to connect locally and globally. It’s all possible because of human rights education, a transformative power for individuals, organizations, and society as a whole.

By Casandra De Masi, web editor and intern at Equitas

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