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United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 [Courtesy]
Seventy years ago, world leaders gathered in Paris to declare never again to the violent atrocities seen in Nazi Germany. Facing their own gulags, subjects of the British Empire met to make a similar declaration in Nairobi. Under the leadership of the Kenya African Union, they called for an end to the white settler colonialism. They also demanded their right to vote, politically participate and to be free from discrimination and persecution. As the world celebrates the 70th anniversary of the signing of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it is clear both conversations transformed the world and Kenya.

Attending 83-year-old Roseline Kahumbu’s funeral this week, I was struck by the relationship between global events and the lives and choices individuals make. Born into a rural English family in the 1930s, she married the London based Kenyan student John Kahumbu three years before Kenya’s Independence. The interracial couple and their children faced racism both in Britain and upon their return, in Kenya. “Roz” consistently made independent and radical choices that startled most of her peers for the next fifty years of her life.

Like many of her generation who have recently departed or now in their sunset years like the late unionist J D Akumu and artist Terry Hirst or writer Amma Ata Aidoo and activist Zarina Patel, they crossed huge geographical and cultural borders to raise their families and transform Kenya and Africa. They felt and acted on the impulse that some rules needed to be intentionally broken for society to breathe. Their lives leave us important lessons. Lives forged in uncertainty and risk tell the best stories. Also, that in the presence of injustice and discrimination, cohesive, compassionate and caring societies have always been created by rebels. 

The lives they wanted are now enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Chapter Four and the Bill of Rights of our Constitution. This year marks a global celebration and reflection of our progress. Rising global levels of extremism, hate-speech, neglect and violence may suggest that the Declaration is no longer relevant. To think this, would be to overlook even very recent achievements. Populations are eating better, poverty levels are dropping and the gender gap is narrowing. The right to health inched closer with new vaccines for cholera and decreases in deaths caused by Aids, cancer, diarrhea and respiratory diseases in 2017. 

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As Kenyans, we have come so far it would take an astrologist to measure the cosmic distance we have covered since 1948. That our country has become more open, active and free did not happen by chance. Independence movements, countless civic organisations like the Green Belt Movement, Kituo cha Sheria, Fida and Kenyan Human Rights Commission as well as new institutions like the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights and the National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission have blazed the way.

As the Jubilee regime grapples with establishing new national ministries this week, it could expand a page from the Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs under the previous Narc Government. The new Cabinet needs to be more deliberative and intentional how it wants to collaborate with womens’ organisations, trade unions, NGOs, community and ward associations and opposition parties.

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