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Why We Are Honoring Maina Kiai: Defending the Freedom of Association Is Central to Upholding Human Rights

Why We Are Honoring Maina Kiai: Defending the Freedom of Association Is Central to Upholding Human Rights

On the occasion of International Human Rights Day—at a time when human, labor and civil rights are under attack in the United States and globally—it is critical that workers are empowered to speak up and act out for justice. Human rights at work only can be defended when the fundamental right to freedom of association is respected and workers can organize for change.

That’s why, next week, the AFL-CIO will present the annual 2016 George Meany–Lane Kirkland Human Rights Award to Maina Kiai, the U.N. special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association.

As the first person to occupy this position, Kiai has raised the profile of worker organizing as essential to defending human rights in a 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, while right-wing demagogues exploit the real pain of working people.

Kiai’s 2016 report to the United Nations makes clear the failure of many industrialized and developing countries to protect and respect human rights at work, often stifling organizing to attract investment from global brands. Earlier this year, Kiai spent more than two weeks in several U.S. cities researching workers’ rights, meeting with with Nissan workers in Canton, Mississippi; United Steelworkers (USW) members at Novelis in New York, and Asarco in Arizona; Retail, Wholesale & Department Store Union (RWDSU/UFCW)-member carwash workers in New York City; UNITE HERE hotel workers in New York and Arizona; and AFT-member teachers in Louisiana.

Kiai experienced firsthand the many obstacles U.S. workers need to overcome to organize and bargain for a better life, and how attacks on freedom of association have contributed to growing racial, social and economic inequality.

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. As he said in a 2015 interview with The Guardian, “I...see human rights as a tool, a device to increase human dignity.”

On this symbolic day celebrating the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, his work is a timely reminder that governments, enterprises and human rights advocates must fully recognize that labor rights are fundamental human rights that must be actively protected, defended and exercised—not simply acknowledged in declarations. 

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