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Why civil society is taking a back seat in political debates

Friday September 20 2013


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Peter Kenneth’s decision this week to join the angry backlash against the “shoot-to-kill” orders given to police officers more than a week ago was welcome.

Kenneth joins earlier denunciations of the controversial order by this paper, national human rights groups and their local counterparts in the North Rift and the Coast.

As each of these different actors has argued, a “shoot-to-kill” order contravenes the Constitution’s guarantees of the right to life. Readers who have pragmatic concerns about insecurity might reflect that such an order is also terrible politics and bad policing.

In towns and cities, indiscriminate violence threatens the legitimacy of the police and will dry up the flow of intelligence from citizens that is needed to effectively fight crime. The costs will be even higher in northern areas where a “shoot-to-kill” policy could be used to counter rustling.

The country’s future energy and water security depends on inclusive policies designed to make northern Kenyans feel wanted. This means ending insecurity through progressive reform, not reactionary, unconstitutional measures that will only increase violent crime in the long run.

But my main interest is not the rights and wrongs of the “shoot-to-kill” policy but rather the reaction to it. Such demonstrations of unity between politicians like Kenneth, the Press and human rights organisations have been commonplace for over two decades. Without such concerted efforts, Kenyans would not be able to enjoy their progressive Constitution, free Press or democracy.



But as heartening as it may be to see Kenyans coming together across region, class and ethnicity divides to protect their hard-won rights, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that such moments are much rarer today than even in the recent past. Just three years after the new Constitution was promulgated, human rights groups are taking a back seat in political debates.

To anyone interested in human rights in Kenya, the great triumphs of the 1990s and 2000s — the resumption of multi-party politics, the release of political prisoners, the exposure of mass corruption, the Narc victory of 2002 and so on — have given way to frustration and, increasingly, concern.

The public appetite for the reformist message once so powerfully advanced by human rights activists is in decline. There are many reasons for this, but one that cannot be discounted is the effect of the intense politicisation surrounding the ICC trials.

Under Kanu, human rights were understood to be about improving everyday life and were championed by leaders at every level of society in the face of state hostility. Now those that call for the protection of human rights are likely to be dismissed as Trojan horses for Western neo-imperialism.

I respect the fact that many readers are unconvinced that the ICC trials are a good thing for the country. I also acknowledge that this scepticism is often based on rational reasoning and principle, even if I happen to think none of these grounds to be strong enough to justify the cases being dismissed before being allowed to run their course.


Critics of the ICC would do well, however, to consider some of the unintended consequences of the campaign being mounted against Kenyan supporters of the ICC by politicians, the press and the social media.

The effect of this vitriol on public debate of human rights generally — not just the ICC cases — is palpable, even from a great distance. Human rights activists are being silenced because of the backlash against their views on the ICC.

Some readers will shed no tears about this fact, but we are all the poorer for a neutered civil society. The individuals being singled out for criticism today are the ones who would, if allowed, fight the great causes that are on the horizon; the defence of the Constitution, the protection of property rights, the fair distribution of oil and gas revenues. With a weak opposition in Parliament, who else will speak up on these matters?

Civil society has provided an important platform for individuals and groups unable for various reasons to enter formal politics. Think, for instance, about the role played by women in civil society and the effects they have had.

Under-represented in Parliament, Cabinet and the civil service, the likes of Wambui Otieno and Wangari Maathai left their imprint on everyday life across the country. Their successors need the space and protection to achieve the same.

Civil society is shrinking before our eyes and the price will be paid by everyone. Transparency, justice and accountability — the principal aims of the human rights movement in Kenya since the late 1980s — make every government and the life of every citizen better.