In February 2020, the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions Dr. Agnes Callamard attended the conference "Every Voice Matters - collaborative approaches to safety in Nairobi's urban settlements". The conference was held in Mathare and hosted by Mathare Social Justice Centre, Ghetto Foundation, Saferworld and PBI Kenya, and part of the 'Ushirijiano kewma kwa Usalama' project funded by the European Union. Here she is speaking to PBI UK Director Susi Bascon about the human rights situation in Kenya, just before the outbreak reached the country.

She was ‘invited by human rights defenders, NGOs, experts who have been alarmed by the rate of killings by the police, of specific target groups it looks like – young men, particularly those living in urban settlements, in very poor conditions.’

With a full lockdown around the corner, the Kenyan government have enforced a 7pm - 5am curfew. The curfew has already proven more of a hazard to public health than the virus itself, with “excessive force” deployed to return citizens to their homes. The most recent report puts the Coronavirus death toll at ten and twelve killed by the police.

Confusion surrounding the extent of police power in this context has led to arbitrary arrests and extortion. Court sessions have been suspended and local police stations granted increased powers. Our partners in the field have witnessed police taking bribes to release people from jail. They have called for police to adhere to the rule of law and publish guidelines for arrest and handling cases at police stations.

‘In the poorest neighbourhood of Nairobi and in the other places of Kenya young men are being killed in total impunity by individuals associated with the security forces. In many cases, investigations into those killings have never taken place or are stalled. In many cases that have been reported to me, the police itself has interfered with the conduct of an effective investigation, making it almost impossible for the independent monitoring body (which is IPOA) to conduct an investigation into the misbehaviour of security officials.’

Photo credit: Manu Valcarce

Kenya is only at the beginning of its fight against COVID-19, but the impact on millions of ordinary citizens is already extraordinary. Kenyans are worried about the government’s response: there are no border quarantine provisions, not enough ICU beds, and national Coronavirus hotlines don’t work. While some politicians have proposed limited aid measures, they will be unlikely to reach the pockets of those living outside the system; those who will need it most.

The virus poses incredible risks to those living in Nairobi’s densely populated urban settlements, where access to water, soap, and sanitation is unreliable, and social distancing next to impossible. While some Kenyans can adapt to working from home, for many living in urban settlements a day away from work means a day without food on the table.

Grassroots activists are the only ones able to advocate on behalf of Kenya’s most vulnerable communities in this critical moment. Working through community based organisations like Editar’s Feminists for Peace and Justice Movement, as part of the Coalition for Grassroots Human Rights Defenders, or within the nation-wide movement of Social Justice Centres, human rights defenders are working tirelessly to protect their communities and save lives.

‘I have felt deeply honoured to meet with the human rights defenders working on police killings. I have been in awe with the mothers of victims who have organised themselves. They know that nothing can bring back their children. Some of the women I met have lost two of their sons, but they now fight for justice for others as well, and they want to protect the children of future mothers.’

Find out more about the human rights situation in Kenya below.

Urban settlements of Nairobi (photo by Manu Valcarce)