Human Rights Defenders Awards are an initiative of the HRD Working Group, which brings together Kenyan civil society actors and international partners, united in their commitment to promote and protect human rights and their defenders. This working group is currently co-chaired by the Embassy of Belgium and the National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders – Kenya (NCHRD-K). This partnership reflects the fundamental importance of national and global solidarity to protect human rights, which are universal.
Three years ago, the Working Group created the Awards to publicly honor and celebrate the courage of ordinary Kenyans who stand up for human rights, and hopefully, inspire many others. Different Awards were set up to cover three categories of HRDs: The newcomers, established activists who have done remarkable work, especially over the past year, and those who have devoted their lives to the cause.
The recipients are carefully chosen out of dozens of applications coming from all over the country by an independent selection panel chaired by former Chief Justice Dr Willy Mutunga. Its members are all eminent Kenyans who are known for their commitment to human rights: Brizan Ogollan (Upper Rift Minorities), George Morara (KNCHR), Grace Lolim (Isiolo-based peace activist), Phyllis Omido (Centre for Justice Governance and Environmental Action), Rachael Mwikali (Coalition For Grassroots Human Rights Defenders – Kenya (CGHRDs-Kenya) and William Oloo Janak (Kenya Correspondents Association).
The panel takes into account the achievements, passion and motivation of the candidates, but also criteria such as ethnicity, gender, age, disability and location, to make sure that Kenyans from all places and walks of life are represented.
The Awards aim to be inclusive and exemplary. If one looks at this year’s nominees, one can see Kenyan HRDs from cities, informal settlements and rural areas. Some are young, others are older. One is a pastor who defends gender and sexual minority groups against discrimination in Mombasa; one a public relations manager who stands up for indigenous peoples’ rights in Lamu; and another a mother and victim of female genital mutilation living in Tana River county.
Human rights violations will not stop if the majority stay silent. The message of the Awards is very clear: We all can and should stand up against human rights violations. Standing up for human rights can, however, be difficult, and even dangerous. Many of our nominees have been at odds with individuals or private companies whose interests are at stake or harassed by elements of the police. Which is why another important aim of the Awards is to enhance their safety and protection, by highlighting the work and achievements of HRDs, which all too often remain unnoticed, especially when they operate at the grassroots. It has indeed become clear that grassroots human rights defenders are more at risk than their better-known compatriots. Some have been threatened or killed.
Grassroots HRDs denouncing extrajudicial threats and killings in slums often do so at the expense of their own safety. Yet, as we consider the number of young people who lose their lives at the hands of the police, the importance of their work is clear. In October, police allegedly killed 17 people in a span of seven days in Dandora, Mathare and Majengo, Nairobi. As the names and identities of the shooters are known, not bringing them to justice through arrests and prosecutions results in an unacceptable impunity. In such cases, the provisions of Article 238 of the Constitution (which require security agencies to operate with the Rule of Law and protect the human rights of the citizens) are continuously violated.
While incredible progress on the promotion and protection of human rights has been made over the last decades in Kenya – largely thanks to the human rights movements and HRDs – human rights violations and especially police brutality still occur too often. Yet, without constitutionalism and the rule of law, accountability and respect for human rights, and an open space for civil society, democracy can only be relative and transformative development limited. It is therefore essential that we all speak up whenever and wherever human rights are being violated.
Nihon is Ambassador of Belgium to Kenya and Mutunga is former Chief Justice & President of the Supreme Court