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

A police officer arrests a man who was trying to take videos of the demonstration using his mobile phone on March 27, 2023, during the anti-Government demonstration in Migori town. [Caleb Kingwara, Standard]

For a decade, human rights organisations have warned that respect for human rights and the rule of law has been deteriorating.

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

The Amnesty International 2022/23 report on the global state of human rights was released across four continents this week. Locally, a diverse audience of 300 academics, community activists and professionals squeezed past two violent maandamano and met at the University of Nairobi to debate the report.

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

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

Russian war crimes in Ukraine were repeatedly condemned by the United Nations and even earned Prime Minister Putin an open invitation to visit the International Criminal Court. In contrast, crimes against humanity and violence in Palestine and Myanmar have been largely ignored. Ukrainian refugees stepped over Syrian, Afghanis and African refugees to a warm welcome. No "Fortress Europe" for the Ukrainians.

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

A "nil-by-mouth" approach was their response to the conflict on their doorstep that claimed over 400,000 Ethiopian lives. Deepening impoverishment and starvation driven by a global fuel and food crisis, economic recession and climate catastrophes is another common trend.

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

Another worrying global trend is the ruthless repression 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 whistle-blowers and environmental defenders have turned public defenders into endangered species across Africa.

Despite the reversal of five decades of abortion rights in the US, new laws in Zimbabwe and Sierra Leone outlawing child marriage and protecting pregnant girls' right to education offer glimmers of hope. So too, do new anti-rape laws enshrining the right to consent across some European countries. A successful international letter-writing campaign to protect South Sudanese teenager Magai Matiop Ngong from a state execution and Zambia's announcement that they would abolish death penalty, offer rays of light.

On the home front, Kenya experienced a generally non-violent but corrupt election that several voters decided to skip. Drought driven starvation, extra-judicial killings, rising living costs, and the failure to restore homes for those forcefully evicted from Mukuru Kwa Njenga were among our worst human rights abuses of 2022. On the more positive side, 2022 saw disbandment of the Police Special Service Unit and the prosecution and conviction of several violent police officers. The 2022 Mental Health Act offers protection and dignity for patients like Kenyan diasporan Irvo Ochieng, who was savagely suffocated to death in a Virginia health facility in the US, recently.

Kenya remains a sanctuary nation for neighbours at risk and an influential foreign policy actor. Our relatively open democratic society remains protected by progressive constitutional values, institutional checks and balances, an active civil society, and a free media. How the state and opposition handle the current zero-sum political tensions and Monday's third maandamano could change all this. It is time for dialogue once more.