Fifty years ago today, the United Nations (UN) General Assembly enshrined a freedom that we had probably treasured ever since our evolution into social animals – the right to assemble and associate freely. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which was adopted along with the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), formalizes the right to peaceful assembly (Article 21) and freedom of association (Article 22), among other fundamental human rights.
As the UN says in observing the half-century milestone, freedoms of assembly and association “are a vehicle for the exercise of many other civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights, allowing people to express their political opinions, engage in artistic pursuits, engage in religious observances, join trade unions, elect leaders, and hold them accountable” As such, they play “a decisive role” in building and consolidating democracy (UN Special Rapporteur, 2016a).
All African countries except South Sudan are signatories or state parties to the ICCPR, committing them to “take positive measures to establish and maintain an enabling environment” for associations – which can be anything from a prayer group to an online discussion group, a demonstration, a labor union, a political party or – yes, as long as it’s peaceful – a birthday party. No participant in an association should have to fear harassment, a travel ban, or a smear campaign, much less violence or detention (UN Special Rapporteur, 2016b).
How well are African governments fulfilling their commitment? Given human-rights activists’ concerns about shrinking civic space (Freedom House, 2016) and continuing headlines about repression in the streets and on the Web (e.g. Human Rights Watch, 2016), how free do Africans feel to exercise their right of association – especially in political organisations, probably the most likely type of association to attract official concern and repression?
Afrobarometer surveys in 36 African countries offer some encouraging news: Most Africans feel at least “somewhat free” to join any political group they want. But only 21 of 36 countries have majorities who feel “completely free,” and some countries have seen sharp declines in perceived freedom.
Freedom of association clearly goes hand in hand with other freedoms and democracy: In places where citizens feel free to associate, they also tend to feel free to speak and vote their minds, and they perceive their countries as functioning democracies.
Even so, one in three Africans say that the government should have the right to ban any organisation that “goes against its policies” – a less-than-absolute endorsement of a freedom that most of them claim.
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