Friday, December 12, 2008



Published on 10/12/2008

While politically motivated human rights violations — like the detentions at the Nyayo House torture chambers — have diminished since 2003, other serious abuses persist, a great many at the hands of security forces, particularly the police.

This assessment by the United States Government, captured in Library of Congress records was shared by many observers well up to mid-last year, but since then abuses, some serious, have been seen to have political considerations behind them.

As the United Nations and the international community mark 60 years since the adoption of its human rights manifesto, we must consider what measures are necessary to stop this erosion of fundamental rights and freedoms.

It is a pity activists are still agitating over violations of the right to life, liberty and security, the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, or the right not to be subjected to torture or inhuman treatment.

Civil and political rights, in our opinion, should no longer be the primary battlegrounds.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights also includes economic, social and cultural rights such as the right to food, clothing, shelter and medical care, to social security, to work, to equal pay for equal work, to form trade unions and to education.

It is here that the nation’s attention ought to be focussed.


Instead, regressive forces in Government ensure we are stuck campaigning on questions of extra-judicial executions of crime suspects, torture of civilians during military operations, mistreatment of remandees and convicts in prison, arbitrary arrests of people in poor neighbourhoods, use of excessive force against protestors and so on.

Freedom of speech and of the Press continue to be compromised through the harassment of journalists and activists. We now have, for instance, a Communications Act that gives a Government minister immense powers to raid broadcasters at will and confiscate equipment on its way to presidential assent.

Public gatherings are restricted and often violently disrupted if considered politically untenable. Assaults and arrests have been witnessed at all levels. Terror suspects are dealt with in disregard of local and international laws and conventions.

The worst of the abuses in the last year, from the killings of hundreds of young men in June to atrocities committed during the post-election crisis and in joint police operations with the military, are yet to be punished.

The immediacy of these basic issues could soon be overridden by public demands to have social and economic rights — particularly the right to food — given greater attention.

As UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said on Wednesday, political repression at a time of a "food emergency and global financial crisis" pose challenges as daunting as those that confronted the Declaration’s drafters in 1948.

Admittedly, Kenya has made some progress. In 2003, Kenya National Commission on Human Rights was set up to ensure compliance with international human rights standards. This independent body has played a significant role in highlighting State-led violations in the five years since. Laws have been passed offering protection to children, women and the disabled. However, violence and discrimination are rife against women, while the abuse of children is still a serious problem.

The most urgent step to cut through the worst of the shortcomings on human rights is that identified by the Waki Commission — radical reform of security forces to free them of political influence and inculcate a respect for individual rights.


This will free the Government to address social, economic and cultural issues before they explode into public dissent.

As the drafters of the General Assembly resolution proclaiming universal rights argued: "If man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, human rights should be protected by the rule of law."