It’s not personal, human rights defenders side with underdogs

Maina Kiai by Maina Kiai
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There is this pervasive but false narrative that suggests that people working in human rights and social justice — whether in NGOs, social movements or the media — must always be neutral or balanced in their critiques of violations and in their analyses.

That is hogwash. Human rights and social justice is about speaking truth to power, and about understanding the power structures so as to denounce and hold accountable those wielding power. 

Human rights, in fact, are about focusing on the underdog and working to turn the power paradigm upside-down.


“Balance” is not about a false equivalency between those holding power, and those seeking change as we now see with western diplomats’ statements on the situation in Kenya.

The Jubilee regime wields immense power in law and in practice and it has a responsibility to wield that power not just in its narrow interests, but for the sake of the majority. 

Its actions are not, and can never be equal to the peaceful efforts of the opposition. 

Indeed, under international human rights law, norms and standards an assembly is judged to be peaceful are based on the intentions of the organisers. 

So, calling for peaceful mass action or protests or demonstrations is not wrong or illegal.


Globally, there is empirical evidence, incidentally, that 95 per cent of chaotic or violent assemblies occur when police intervene and do so in an excessive way.

And it is wrong, illegal and immoral for any regime to invoke “national security” without further explanation as an excuse for breaking the law as Jubilee did when it turned off broadcast media during the "swearing-in" of Mr Raila Odinga.

For the avoidance of doubt, whether Mr Odinga’s swearing in was strategic, wise or effective is neither here nor there. 

He was simply exercising his rights of expression, assembly and association to try to make a point. 

We do not have to agree with him and his actions, but we must surely defend his right to exercise his rights peacefully.


It is much the same as Boniface Mwangi exercising his right to assembly and expression when he unleashed pigs at Parliament to visualise the similarity between the behaviour of our MPs and that of pigs! 

Some thought he went overboard but that is immaterial. He made a point, which incidentally these same western diplomats assailing Mr Odinga lauded with glee.

And it is the same as when the Kenya Human Rights Commission would take the bodies of people shot by the police in the 1990s to Vigilance House so that the officers who killed the men would bury them. 

It shocked many then but it was to make a point that the impunity and recklessness of the police in taking people’s lives was wrong and unacceptable and that the police should not be investigator, judge, jury and executioner.


With this context in mind, it is not surprising that most rights and social justice advocates and defenders find themselves opposing the Jubilee regime. 

This is not personal, nor is it intrinsic or ethnic. 

A regime like Jubilee that is pathologically corrupt, inherently opposed to human rights in its statements and actions, and which does not hide its distaste for independent civil society will inevitably attract opposition from honest rights defenders.

Any human rights defender who supports such as regime, who votes for it, and who even seeks positions in the regime will inevitably attract suspicion. 


We have the right to support whoever we please, but backing an abusive regime means other factors, such as tribe, trump their supposed human rights or social justice values. 

Now, this does not mean that human rights people automatically support the opposition! 

There may be a commonality of interests at some points — such as seeking electoral justice, wanting reform that benefits the marginalised, desire to raise devolution and the role of the majority poor, and in ending corruption — but as we learned with the Kibaki regime, politicians often turn around once they are in power and repeat the violations and abuses of the previous administration!

There is no perfect choice, but as a general rule of thumb, true rights defenders side with the underdog.

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