In recognition of his dedication to and effectiveness in highlighting the widespread denial of fundamental human rights at work and in society, the AFL-CIO is proud to present the 2016 George Meany-Lane Kirkland Human Rights Award to Maina Kiai, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association. As the first person to occupy this position, Mr. Kiai has set a substantial precedent, raising the profile of urgent and timely issues that have mushroomed in a rapidly changing, corporate-led, globalized economy. In the face of widening inequality and growing profits for companies, millions of workers are denied the most fundamental rights and a fair share of the wealth they produce.
Mr. Kiai’s 2016 report to the United Nations General Assembly examining the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association in the workplace makes clear the failure of many industrialized and developing countries to protect and respect human rights at work. Governments often weaken worker rights protections to attract investment, while global brands and other companies build supply chains that depend on low wages, unstable work arrangements and loosely enforced or nonexistent labor laws. The result is an increasingly marginalized workforce, with more than 1.5 billion workers in precarious jobs that pay poverty wages. Mr. Kiai’s reports have shed light on governments’ increasing encroachment on the exercise of assembly and association, among other key human rights.
Mr. Kiai’s own experience growing up with children who did not have enough to eat or who had to leave school because they could not afford fees, led him to see the defense of human rights as the only way forward. As Mr. Kiai said in a 2015 interview with The Guardian, “I came to see human rights as a tool, a device to increase human dignity.” Through his experience as chair of Kenya’s National Human Rights Commission, Mr. Kiai understands firsthand the erosion of these rights around the world. After violence erupted in Kenya in the wake of the disputed 2007 election, leaving more than 1,200 people dead, Mr. Kiai was notified that members of Kenya’s police force had set out to assassinate him and some of his staff.
Mr. Kiai’s work as Special Rapporteur makes clear that only a rights-based approach to the challenges of poverty, inequality and injustice will lead to lasting solutions. His October 2016 report calls on all governments, enterprises and human rights advocates to fully recognize that labor rights are fundamental human rights that must be actively protected, defended and exercised—not simply acknowledged in declarations.
Tireless in his tenure, which began May 1, 2011, Mr. Kiai has made clear that the lack of access to fundamental human rights affects our democracies and workplaces all around the world. His upcoming report, focused on the United States, looks at how the attacks on freedom of association have contributed to growing racial, social and economic inequality. His work underscores the need to address the ongoing weakening of rights around the world. Mr. Kiai points us all toward answers to prevent a wide range of such egregious violations as the Rana Plaza factory collapse, which killed more than 1,100 workers; Uzbekistan’s state-run cotton harvest, which forces 1 million men, women and some children to pick cotton each fall; the use of deadly government force against striking workers in Cambodia, Colombia and Kazakhstan; or the day-to-day denial of freedom of association in Mississippi and Swaziland. In the case of all these violations, the human rights at stake are known but not respected. Mr. Kiai’s conclusions leave little doubt that human rights at work only can be defended when workers are empowered by their fundamental rights.