Human rights gains at risk due to impunity among those in power

Mathare-based leader Benna Buluma. She lost her two sons during the 2017 post-poll chaos. [Boniface Okendo, Standard]

Benna Buluma was not killed by raging floods. The Mathare-based leader was killed by the lack of dignified housing, urban planning and misgovernance.

This and the recent release of the global State of Human Rights report must trigger us to rethink how to future-proof Kenya, Africa, and the world. 

Benna founded the Mothers of Victims and Survivors Network after her two sons were unlawfully killed by police officers during the 2017 electoral violence. Her boldness gave many affected by extra-judicial killings and enforced disappearances, the courage to speak up and demand justice. Her body was recovered from a submerged house this week. 

Benna did not die alone. By Thursday, at least 46 people had drowned, 29,370 households were homeless, and 55 displacement camps had been set up across 27 out of Kenya’s 47 counties. Tragically, this week’s climate emergency is not the first for Kenya or the world. The release of Amnesty International 2023/2024 State of the World’s Human Rights report this week is highly significant. 

The Kenya report is the first scorecard on the Kenya Kwanza government. The African country reports provide AUC Chairperson candidates Kenya’s Raila Odinga and Djibouti’s Ali Youssouf with human rights analysis and agenda to lead from.

Lastly, the report offers new ideas for 193 states groping towards a new vision for multilateralism, international human rights standards and a sustainable world before the UN Conference of the Future in September. 

Russian aggression against Ukraine, the relentless bombing of the Palestinian people by Israel and conflicts in Sudan, Ethiopia and Myanmar have punctured any remaining vestige of public confidence in an international system that will protect human beings against massive violations of international humanitarian and human rights law. 

More encouragingly, millions marched and petitioned for peace, housing, reproductive health and against fossil fuels and corruption in most regions of the world. Their passionate protests exposed the manipulation of United Nations mechanisms, diplomatic doublespeak and disregard for civilian lives by the most powerful nations in the world.

Kenya experienced eight systemic challenges. Rising living costs, punitive taxes, and mandatory contributions plunged most into economic distress. Education and health were acutely squeezed by Kenya’s obligations to creditors, corruption, and extravagance. 

While extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearances dropped 15.8 per cent from 2022, brutal protest policing possibly took the police back seven years to the post-election violence of 2017. 2023 saw the greatest spike in hate speech and hate crimes against persons from sexual minorities in a generation. Environmental policies confusingly swung from lifting logging and genetically modified agriculture bans to reforestation and carbon markets initiatives.

Remarkable progress was made to digitise 5,000 government services. The WorldCoin scandal and e-Citizen cyber-attack among others demonstrated the urgency for secure, privacy by designing public digital systems.

Lastly, despite studies showing that the death penalty is less popular among the public and no longer a deterrent for violent criminals, the government failed for another year, to legally abolish it. 

Kenya and the world are at an inflexion point. Another year of flagrant violations and rule-breaking by powerful states could drill the last of nails into the coffin of the UN and regional inter-governmental agencies. In two weeks, 4,000 civil society organisations will be in Nairobi for the United Nations Civil Society conference. They must focus on designing a new global pact that stops impunity, protects fundamental rights, holds states accountable and breathes new life into the multi-lateral system and national governments. 

Elder Zarina Patel calmly slipped away this week. The late author and activist would remind us that tinkering with global capitalism, gross inequalities and autocratic governance practices offers no solution to the problems billions face. Citizens, social movements, and their allies in governments and elsewhere must find more radical strategies or watch a generation of progress perish.

[email protected]