As we aspire for UN seat, state should promote human rights

Kenya’s human rights record was examined by all member states of the United Nations in Geneva this week. Given the importance of the moment, it is surprising that the lead up to the #UPR35 review has not been covered more extensively for 47 million Kenyans. All states are required to undergo a Universal Periodic Review every four and a half years coordinated by the UN Human Rights Council. The review examines the state of human rights and the progress being taken by governments to address their obligations under international human rights standards.

Slotted between Lesotho and Armenia last Thursday, it was the Kenyan government’s turn. As can be expected, the human rights violations and the violence leading up to, during and after the 2017 elections featured during the 2016-2019 review. NGO offices raids, harassment and intimidation of human rights defenders and journalists, switching off media stations, disregard for court orders and failure to commence the Public Benefits Organisations Act dominated the discussion. So too, did Kenya’s progress in abolishing the death penalty, advancing gender parity and women’s rights and protection of refugees, migrants and LGBTIQ communities.

It is important to recognise that the weight of the criticism was directed at the stains of 2016-2018 period and that, we have seen some considerable gains since. New appointments at the helm of the NGO Coordination Board have restored an open door and constructive relationship with the 8,000 or so NGOs that operate in the country. The multi-agency taskforce between human rights organisations, Interior Ministry and law enforcement bodies offered a much-needed platform for collective understanding and accountability in 2018. Statistically, the number of human rights abuses have reduced since 2017.

Not-withstanding, two years before the next elections some trends have not been reversed and key fundamentals are not yet in place. The Public Benefits Organisations Act continues to attract dust in State House despite clearance by the National Security Council. According to the Defenders Coalition, Kenya National Commission of Human Rights and Amnesty International, there have been 3,014 cases of harassment, 36 arbitrary arrests, 10 forced evictions of LGBT persons from their homes in the last three years. Thousands of forest dwelling communities and urban informal settlements were forcibly evicted from their homes in Nairobi, Elgeyo Marakwet, Mombasa and elsewhere over 2018 and 2019. Most were not given the option of resettlement.

The use of tear gas, excessive force and live bullets seems to be the response to curbing crime or peaceful protestors expressing dissent. After considerable public outcry, it finally took the President to issue instructions to the Police Inspector General that merely transferring officers who break the law is no longer acceptable. Rogue officers must be dismissed and charged with abuse of the law.

It is not just that violent policing threatens the right to life, rogue policing undermines public faith in the entire criminal justice system. The security services have less than a year left to implement human rights training that deepens compliance with UN basic principles on the use of force and firearms before the next elections.

This week’s review commended Kenya for being the first African country to adopt a business and human rights national action plan, addressing gender-based discrimination and workplace sexual harassment, increased citizen’s access to safe drinking water and sanitation as well passing the Data Protection Act last year.

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While Kenya has not yet formally abolished the death penalty in line with the taskforce’s recommendations, member states welcomed the progress towards wiping this colonial and inhumane practice from our books. Leading the national delegation, Cabinet Administrative Secretary Ababu Namwamba reiterated their commitment to upholding the rule of law in the war against terror, recognising hidden populations like the Inter-Sex Persons as well as eliminating female genital mutilation and child-marriages and promoting renewable energy over fossil fuels.

The United Nations Human Rights Council is critical in a world where dictatorships in most of the world’s most powerful nations have weakened global accountability for human rights. It is not surprising that some of these serial rights abusers seek to be elected to it. They know the soft diplomatic power it welds in cases from Myanmar, Yemen to Syria. As Kenya aspires to hold a non-permanent seat at the UN Security Council, it must demonstrate leadership domestically and internationally to defend and promote human rights over the next few years.

- The writer is Amnesty International Executive Director. [email protected]

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