• Human rights defenders are part and parcel of the fabric of Kenya’s society.
• Without them, the country would be at a loss.
The rising cases of harassment of human rights defenders are disturbing and perplexing. Last weekend, 12 human rights defenders were arrested in Huruma, Nairobi. According to the defenders, they were subjected to torture, inhuman and degrading treatment by the police. Three of the comrades were from a meeting that they had duly notified the police about and were on their way home when they were arrested.
On hearing about the arrest, nine other human rights defenders rushed to the police station at various intervals to find out why their comrades had been arrested. To their dismay, on reaching the police station, they too were arrested and locked up with the three. They all spent the night in jail and it was not until Sunday evening that they were released on police bail. The charges preferred against them were flimsy and included being drunk and disorderly, as well as causing a disturbance.
Kenya has one of the most vibrant civil societies in Africa, boasting of one of the most active, innovative and enduring non-governmental sectors on the continent. Civil society has historically played a critical role in complementing the government’s development efforts as well as being a critical counterbalance to government excesses during various phases of the post-Independence era. Undoubtedly human rights defenders are part and parcel of the fabric of Kenya’s society. Without them, the country would be at a loss.
Unfortunately, in the last decade or so, Kenya’s hard-won civic space has been steadily shrinking. There have been vicious social media attacks on citizens’ engagement and civil society by what are perceived to be security operated social media platforms such as the infamous Hessy wa Dandora Facebook account, freezing of the accounts of NGOs that question government’s excessive operations, restrictive and obstructive legislative amendments of NGOs' operations, arbitrary arrests of human rights defenders and intimidation and jailing of bloggers critical of government.
In 2010, Kenya promulgated one of the most progressive constitutions in the world with a strong bill of rights that guaranteed not only civic and political rights but also socioeconomic and group rights. The Constitution confers strong national values and high integrity standards. It also guarantees civic action and calls on the people to take charge of their political, social and economic affairs. Amongst other rights, Article 37 provides for the right to peaceably and unarmed to assemble, demonstrate and picket.
Civil society has historically played a critical role in complementing the government’s development efforts as well as being a critical counterbalance to government excesses in post-Independence era.
Allowing civil society to be silenced through restrictive legislative frameworks, arbitrary funding limits, threats, harassment and intimidation by the state would fundamentally undermine efforts to build Kenya as a strong, stable and united country that guarantees peace and sustainable development for all its citizens.
This would further erode Kenya’s capacity to continue to play a lead role in promoting peace and stability in East and Central Africa. It also has an indirect but systematic attack and limitation of the constitutional commissions, like the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights and Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA), which work with and rely on NGOs.
The arrest of the human rights defenders last weekend not only was it unconstitutional but also a gross violation of their rights as some of the comrades were tortured and injured. The defenders also alleged the female comrades were sexually harassed.
Article 36 of the Constitution provides every person with the right to freedom of association, which includes the right to form, join or participate in the activities of an association of any kind. Therefore, being arrested and tortured for belonging to and participating in civic activities is unconstitutional and illegal.
During the week Coast-based social justice centres, including Sisters for Justice (S4J), Institute for Land Governance and Human Rights (INLAGHR), Usawa na Uhaki, and Haki Africa, condemned in the strongest terms possible the arrest and subsequent mistreatment of the Huruma 12 and other human rights defenders in general.
As human rights defenders, they communicated that they will not allow the police to take Kenyans back to the dark old days of zero civic space. Further, they called on the Inspector General of Police to take action against the police officers who were involved in the arrest. It is imperative that as a country we uphold the dignity and rights of human rights defenders.