Visiting human rights defender Naythan in Kenya
Zebras graze along the highway connecting Nairobi, Kenya’s bustling capital city, and the Rift Valley, where many courageous individuals are deeply involved in the defense of human rights. Deep into Kenya’s Rift Valley, green rolling hills and lush forests stretch out in every direction.
By Amy Austin, August 4, 2017
As a Justice & Peace intern with The Hague Training Course in the Fall of 2016, I had the deep pleasure of befriending Naythan, a Kenyan human rights defender (HRD) who has overcome enormous obstacles to persevere in the defense and promotion of human rights in his community. Naythan spent three months in The Netherlands with Justice and Peace’s Shelter City Initiative, receiving respite and support. He was also a participant in The Hague Training Course, receiving training in physical and digital security for HRDs who are critically at risk because of their work.
Now back at home, Naythan is certainly not without further support. The National Coalition for Human Rights Defenders (NCHRD) is a local Kenyan organization providing vital networks of support for human rights defenders throughout the country. According to one NCHRD staff addressing local human rights defenders, “we want you to be safe where you are and if something happens we want to be able to help you”. NCHRD achieves this mission through protection programs Including legal, medical and safety support), as well as capacity-building and advocacy programs.
Recently, I had the esteemed pleasure of joining the Coalition for a two-day workshop. The workshop brought together 5 HRD organizations in the county who are addressing a variety of human rights issues including: indigenous rights, LGBTIQ rights, police accountability, extrajudicial killings, and access to justice. The workshop served to unite local HRDs working across this diversity of issues and to equip them with preparation strategies for the upcoming national elections which many expect to turn violent.
NCHRD Executive Director, DK Ngugi, warned the HRDs that “People mark you because you speak out. You speak truth to power”. He therefore asked them, “How can we hold each other’s hands at this time when we are going to be pressed so hard?” In the coming week, close eyes will be on these HRDs, especially those engaged in election monitoring, placing them at the center of tensions likely to turn violent.
Salome, Protection Officer for the NCHRD, pointed out how “elections should just be part of normal life, but it’s feeling like a lifetime”, and that it is necessary to prepare for “the various landmines that come along the way”. She went on to ask, “if there are some challenges that are going to arise, how are we going to react? We need to put measures in place to mitigate risks around the election period”. Thus, in this two-day workshop, NCHRD staff led participants to identify and prepare for likely scenarios including an internet shut down, office raids, the arrest of HRDs and the threat of personal violent attacks. NCHRD staff led HRDs to identify community support mechanisms, reminding them again and again that they are not alone in this work – that they have a strong network among each other at the county level, as well as nationally. They led each organization to think of the specific pressure points they face depending on their particular area of focus.
At the end of the second day, participants engaged in a press conference introducing themselves and their work to the local media. Director of the Nakuru-based Center for Democracy and Good Governance (CEDGG), Masese Kemunche, stressed the importance of adherence to good governance principles throughout the election period and highlighted the critically important nature of such adherence and protection at this time of heightened risk. Through joining together the voices of the many organizations defending human rights in the county, HRDs confirmed that what they fight for is not about just any one particular issue. Rather, in the words of NCHRD Protection Officer, Salome Nduta, “You can’t be a local defender who works alone. You need to be a defender who works together for the promotion of human rights”.