NDUBI: Rights activists have been wronged, government can do better
As Kenya joins the world in celebrating the World Human Rights Day, it is important to take an audit of the progress made, or lack of it.
In August 2010, a new and agreeably progressive Constitution was adopted in Kenya. The 2010 Constitution was poised to bring much-needed change to a republic that had borne the brunt of an oppressive regime under a literally all-powerful president for decades.
There has been consensus that the Bill of Rights in the Kenyan Constitution is one of the best in Africa and more recently, barely three years after devolution took off, it is emerging that the Bill was probably the most well thought-out section, judging from the dismal performance of the devolved units.
Major reforms followed the adoption of the constitution largely under the Mwai Kibaki-led government, with new constitutional bodies being set up and previous organs reconstituted to abide by the spirit and letter of the law.
The Truth Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC) and the National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC) were set up in 2008 to avert ethnic conflicts and political violence as witnessed in 2007 giving hope to Kenyans for a better future.
Without further listing the obvious attempts that have been made to setup and operationalise semi-independent bodies to fight graft and ensure a free society, the gaping disconnect between laid down intentions and results witnessed is inescapable.
Issues of widespread impunity and corruption continue to permeate the Kenyan society. Local and International Human Rights bodies say increased insecurity has now resulted in gross violation of human rights at the hands of the Kenyan security forces desperate to curb the continued threat of the Al-Qaeda linked terrorist group Al-Shabaab.
A report released by the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR) in September, documented 120 cases of egregious human rights violations that include 25 extrajudicial killings and 81 enforced disappearances.
KNCHR faulted security agencies for allegedly resorting to inhumane ways of treating suspects in the name of fighting terror including arbitrary arrests, extortion, illegal detention, torture, killings and disappearances.
This report somewhat gives weight to allegations made recently by Mandera leaders over disappearances by residents that unfortunately sent security officers in wild chase of elusive or possibly non-existent ‘mass graves’.
The desperation by the North Eastern leaders should be understandable in the light of past occurrences of killings and disappearances that cannot be overstated. For this section of Kenyans the glorified Bill of Rights is a dream.
The most unfortunate incident is the apparent hostility towards independent civil society organisations and individual human rights defenders that the government is reportedly accused of.
Some politicians have branded civil society as “evil society” in public especially in relation to their stand regarding the cases facing two Kenyans at the International Criminal Court (ICC). The current United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Maina Kiai, is one example of prominent social activists who have been belittled for belonging to this ‘‘evil society’’.
Besides the “showdown” at the ICC between the government and civil society groups, the latter has been accused of using terrorism threats as an excuse to muzzle political activists, dissidents, media and civil society.
This is has been occasioned by the strong criticism by civil rights groups over the government’s handling of counter-terrorism measures at home and in Somalia.
The Security Laws Amendments Bill that was endorsed by parliament allows the president to expand the power of the government, and made reporting of terrorism-related issues difficult for the media.
Another affront at the constitution has been the Parliamentary Powers and Privileges Bill also endorsed by the National Assembly whose clause 27, requires journalists to seek parliamentary approval before publishing proceedings of Parliament or any of its committees, and Clause 34, which introduces the offences of defamation and ‘scandalous libel’ on parliament reporting.
This has continuously indicated a deliberate attempt to suppress freedom of expression and access to information by legislators and government.
The government has also attempted to introduce new laws and amendments governing the civil society where limiting the amount of funding they can receive from external sources is to be set.
Luckily, the Judiciary has stepped in to suspended controversial amendments and offered more time for public involvement.
This World Human Rights Day would have been better celebrated by government and the civil society coming together to bridge the rift that has been growing over the years that will see seemingly malicious legislation dropped and in the same breath malicious criticism from the civil society dropped.
As much as the civil society seems to have been wronged, specific players cannot claim sainthood and since the Kenyan citizenry stands to benefit, attempts should be made to reconcile the two.
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