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  • Writer's pictureIrungu Houghton

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

For a decade, human rights organizations have warned that the 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 very diverse audience of 300 academics, community activists and professionals squeezed past two violent maandamano protests and met at the University of Nairobi to hotly 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 marginalization, 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 peaceful 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 the African continent.

Despite the reversal of five decades of abortion rights in the USA, 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 the 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 the disbandment of the Police Special Service Unit and the prosecution and conviction of several violent police officers. The 2022 Mental Health Act will offer better protection and dignity for patients like Kenyan diasporan Irvo Ochieng, who was savagely suffocated to death in a Virginia health facility in the United States of America 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.

This opinion also published in the Saturday Standard on 1 April 2023 #StandardSettingKE

Irũngũ Houghton and Benta Moige are Amnesty International Kenya Executive Director and Country Researcher, respectively and write in their personal capacity. Email: and


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