Azimio demos offer stern test to Kenya’s respect for human rights

A police officer arrests a man who was trying to video the demonstration with his mobile phone during an anti-government protest in Migori town on March 27, 2023. [Caleb Kingwara, Standard]

For a decade, human rights organizations have warned that respect for human rights and the rule of law is deteriorating.

Analysis released this week shows 2022 was another disastrous year for human rights, and international governance fell to an all-time low. If this is true, what should Kenya, Africa and the international community do now?

The Amnesty International 2022/23 Report on the Global State of Human Rights was released this week across four continents. Locally, a diverse audience of 300 academics, community activists and professionals queried the two violent Mandamano and met at the University of Nairobi to debate the report.

The report highlights emerging trends in freedom of expression and assembly, excessive use of force and extrajudicial killings, forced evictions, the right to health and women’s rights. Covering 161 countries, including Kenya, the report focuses on economic, social and cultural rights, the rights of internally displaced people, refugees and migrants, discrimination and marginalisation, and the climate crisis.

Despite it being the 75th year since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights declared all human beings equal under international law, rich countries continue to apply double standards to conflicts and rights-based violations around the world.

Russian war crimes in Ukraine have been repeatedly condemned by the United Nations and even led to an open invitation to Prime Minister Putin to visit the International Criminal Court. In contrast, crimes against humanity and violence in Palestine and Myanmar have been largely ignored. Ukrainian refugees warmly welcomed Syrians, Afghans and African refugees. No “Fortress Europe” for Ukrainians.

Despite two decades of state-based pan-Africanism, the response of the African Union to serious human rights violations in Mali, Cameroon, or Mozambique has been timid or absent.

A “zero-to-the-mouth” approach was his response to the conflict on his doorstep that claimed more than 400,000 Ethiopian lives. Deeper poverty and hunger driven by the global fuel and food crisis, economic downturn and climate catastrophe is another common trend.

Neglected by their governments, Zimbabweans, Liberians and South Sudanese are barely surviving with their increasingly fragile economies.

Another worrying global trend is the ruthless suppression of dissent, the right to assembly and association. States have responded with excessive use of unlawful force against protesters in Nigeria, Senegal, Guinea and elsewhere. Intimidation and brutal killings of human rights defenders, anti-corruption whistleblowers and environmental defenders have turned public defenders into an endangered species across Africa.

Despite five decades of abortion rights reversals in the US, new laws in Zimbabwe and Sierra Leone outlawing child marriage and protecting pregnant girls’ right to education offer a glimmer of hope. So too, do new anti-rape laws in some European countries ensuring the right to consent. A successful international letter-writing campaign to save South Sudanese teenager Magai Matiope Nong from state execution and Zambia’s announcement that they will abolish the death penalty provide rays of light.

On the domestic front, Kenya experienced a generally non-violent but corrupt election that many voters chose to leave. Drought-caused starvation, extra-judicial killings, rising costs of living, and failure to restore the homes of those forcibly evicted from Mukuru Kwa Njenga were among our worst human rights abuses of 2022. On the more positive side, 2022 saw the disbandment of the Police Special Service Unit and the prosecution and conviction of several violent police officers. The Mental Health Act of 2022 provides protection and respect for patients like Irvo Ochieng, a Kenyan migrant who was recently found fatally suffocated to death at a Virginia health facility in the US.

Kenya remains a sanctuary nation for risky neighbors and an influential foreign policy actor. Our relatively open democratic society is protected by progressive constitutional values, institutional checks and balances, an active civil society and a free media. How the state and the opposition handle the current zero-sum political tension and Monday’s third Mandamno could change all that. It is time for dialogue once again.

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