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  • Writer's pictureIrungu Houghton

What can Kenya learn from this year's Amnesty International Report?

It’s been two years since Amnesty International published its International report on the state of Human Rights. While hated by authoritarian leaders, the report is a point of reference for all who seek more just and compassionate societies globally. What lessons can we draw for a world in its second year of the corona pandemic? How does Kenya fare in the report and what lessons can we draw for state officers and citizens?

Very few countries escape the scrutiny of Amnesty International. Four global trends stand out from last year. In over half of the countries studied, millions of people most affected by the pandemic were the least protected. Refugees found themselves either trapped in underfunded and squalid camps or locked out by closed borders during the pandemic. 10,000 remain stranded on the border of Democratic Republic of Congo. Gender based and domestic violence also spiked by 30 per cent across several countries.

Hundreds of millions of informal and formal workers lost their jobs and livelihoods in countries like Bangladesh and Egypt. Too few Governments negotiated with unions to introduce social protection measures and open-ended unpaid leave. More tragically, more than 17,000 health-workers died from COVID-19 related complications while protecting others. Many died from inadequate personal protective equipment.

Some states also ruthlessly exploited the crisis and weaponized COVID-19 to launch fresh attacks on human rights. From Hungary to India, states have clamped down on the freedom of expression. Under the cover of the curfew, shoot to kill policing policies, arbitrary arrests, detentions and police brutality have been used to crush protesters in the Philippines, Nigeria and Brasil.

Thirdly, rather than spurring greater international cooperation, the pandemic accelerated national self-interest particularly from richer and wealthier nations. Ninety countries have introduced export trade restrictions affecting items including medical equipment, PPE, medicine, and food. Rich countries have undermined global vaccine access by buying and hoarding most of the world’s vaccines and failing to block restrictive intellectual patents by pharmaceutical companies. Debt rescheduling rather than outright cancellation has been the response of G20 countries despite the reality that debt repayments for many African countries is more than their annual budgets for health.

Lastly, failed by their Governments, citizens courageously rose over 2020 to creatively protest state violence and neglect on a scale not seen since the civil rights movements and the independence movements of the 1960s. From the Black Lives Matter protests in the United States, END SARS protests in Nigeria and pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, new and creative forms of protest have led to many victories.

The four trends will sound very familiar to Kenyans. Apart from a specific national section, this year’s human rights report has fourteen specific references to human rights violations in Kenya. While less than half of the violations referenced for Russia, Brasil and China, it is worth looking at what would reduce the scale and violence of human rights in 2021. Progress on several fronts come to mind.

Convicting or releasing police officers currently implicated in over 100 cases of police brutality as well as announcing new human rights-based guidelines for managing curfew and peaceful protest would be an obvious win. Arbitrary arrests of civic activists for protesting public finance mismanagement like in the case of the Kileleleshwa19 and Mutemi wa Kiama this week will not help next year's report. While defamation is criminal, mocking a President is not.

Perhaps the Police Service, Bloggers Association and Kenya Union of Journalists could announce training for investigators, bloggers, online influencers, and journalists on the fine line between freedom of expression and hate speech.

Prioritising health-care investment, regulated and transparent vaccine importation and distribution is critical to ensure that those who need jabs most, get them first and for free. Both civic organisations and the State can do more to boldly challenge the situation described so well as global vaccine apartheid by the Foreign Affairs Ministry.

Our National Assembly could accelerate enacting the Whistle-Blowers Protection and Evictions and Resettlement bills. This would fortify the fight against corruption and create new guidelines for infrastructural development that will not displace thousands.

The state must also find alternatives to the mass decampment and involuntary return of over 500,000 Dadaab and Kakuma refugees to certain death and danger.

Perhaps County Governments could emulate the inspiring declaration by the Nairobi Metropolitan Services last month that they will convert old Government houses into safe houses and shelters for those assaulted, raped and abused during this period.

Reducing human rights violations is not as difficult as climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. However, it does require political imagination and practical actions by both those in the state and our society.

This opinion was partially published in the Saturday Standard 10 April 2021


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