Kenya: Interviews With Key Actors on Public Policies for the Protection of HRDs in Africa. Catherine Mbui

In the second half of the year 2023, Protection International organized a webinar and a Regional Conference (October 11th-13th, Nairobi) on Public Policies for Human Rights Defenders (HRDs) in Africa.

Both events brought together various stakeholders from the region. HRDs, representatives of national human rights institutions (NHRI), and authorities attended to exchange good practices and discuss future steps towards stronger public policies for the protection of all HRDs in Africa.

Both events were also designed to facilitate the exchange of knowledge and ideas concerning the evolving protection environment in the region.Following both events, we had the opportunity to conduct a series of interviews with the panelists and other participants. In this case, we present the highlights of the conversation we had with Robert Mugisa, Head of Programmes at Human Rights Centre Uganda. Find other interviews conducted with key actors Public Policies for HRDs in Africa here.

Catherine Mbui is the Senior Human Rights Officer and HRDs Focal Person at the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR). She works in the Nairobi office and particularly leading on complaints management. Catherine Mbui is an Advocate of the High Court of Kenya with over 10 years’ experience in human rights work. Catherine joined KNCHR as a human rights officer in 2014 and is currently serving as an Advocate & Senior Human Rights Officer in the Complaints and Investigations Directorate.

Interview conducted by Megan Thomas on 16 October in Nairobi, Kenya.

So first of all, is there a dedicated public institution or mechanism in Kenya focused on safeguarding the rights and wellbeing of human rights defenders and offering them avenues for redressing the rights of human rights violations?

In Kenya we do not have any public institution or mechanism set up by the state that looks into matters concerning human rights defenders. So as a national human rights institution we have taken it upon ourselves to make sure the agenda is pushed. At the end of 2017, we were able to push for a model law but it has not been adopted or even implemented by the State or any ministry department or agency. The Kenyan Commission also receives direct complaints.

Given the significant role of political will in this domain, could you identify the specific institution that spearheaded the efforts to provide the development of legislation?

Concerning the model law, it was us as the Kenya National Commission, the NHRI. We worked with a lot of our partners, Defenders Coalition and a few other stakeholders. So we are still pushing it with the same stakeholders and hoping there will be progress. We’ve been fortunate to have international partners come in, such as Protection International, Peace Brigade International, but the state is yet to adopt it and bring it into mainstreaming in the different sectors across the country.

Did EU embassies play any role in this process, in developing the legislation?

Yes, they have been our funders. They have given a lot of support, whether it comes to technical support, financial support, human resources and a lot of training and capacity building. And we are grateful. I cannot mention the exact amounts and the times, but I know they are also supporting us in different other projects, but mostly on human rights defenders work. They also provide support on pushing for the model law as well as the protection of human rights defenders on the ground in Kenya.

And are there any coalitions or regional groups that take forward these issues?

Yes. The Kenya National Commission, we work with the Defend Defenders and also Defenders Coalition of Kenya and they are the main host of the regional hub and the Kenyan sector when it comes to human rights defenders’ work. It brings together actors and donors who engage on individual cases and the general human rights civic space in Kenya. So yes, there is a very vibrant group hosted by the Defenders Coalition in Kenya.

Is there any specific collaborative group that works on more marginalised groups? So women human rights defenders, LGBT defenders, handicapped defenders?

We have engaged on individual projects with human rights defenders, mostly with FIDA and Protection International, but that was for our past grant. The SOGIESC (sexual orientations, gender identities, gender expressions and sex characteristics) agenda is continuing. We are working with different partners on the ground, even GALCK+ and other agencies that come in. I cannot speak on whether it’s a formal registered network, but I know it’s a very vibrant and continuous one. They deal with security, they deal with capacity building, they deal with protection and rescue situations and they are very much active. In the last one month we’ve had protests, anti-LGBTI protests and these organisations have been the main go-to people in Nairobi but also some in Mombasa where the protests have been more active. It’s a very active formal network but we are not the hosts, we are not the secretariat and we are not the hosts.

Is there any way in which human rights defenders can join these networks?

One strategy has been to register as a human rights defender with the coalition, so that you are more informed on the various activities that go on. Second is for civil society groups, grassroots community, HRD groups, to also engage with the platform directly as for dissertation or attendance. The invite goes out, there’s meetings every quarter, so it’s more on a participatory level and also availability. Depending if you go out of the head office of Nairobi, then it depends on who’s present in a particular area. We don’t support money across each other, we support the human rights defenders on the ground, so we will not be able to support a team from Nairobi to another region. But if they have funding, they’re definitely invited, it’s not a closed group. There are no registration fees, but in whatever activities that come in, you support your representative and presence in the activity. So it’s indirect financial support.

Then what strategies would you identify to encourage a greater number of countries or provinces to enact such policies? What practical measures can be implemented and what specific steps can be taken to take forward these initiatives?

One idea that is a very long shot, is trying to move human rights defenders into the political space and into strategic leadership positions. A very well known Kenyan human rights defender became the chief justice and during his tenure a lot of activism was done, a lot of cases were heard and a lot of networks were developed. So as much as we want to stay in our civil societies, we want to stay in our offices as government, we want to stay in our grassroots level, there has to be a few of us, or as many of us as possible, who actually step into the political spaces and we support them, either on an individual basis as human rights defenders, because they know, they will understand the dynamics that play at the political level. Secondly, there is leveraging on our networks. A lot of us sometimes insist on getting people on the ground, yet they are already existing different institutions or individuals. So leveraging on who is where at what time and making sure they are informed. Creating an ad hoc network helps us move, especially during protection cases, even as we lobby for the legislation and other aspects. For protection, we need more boots on the ground. Let’s use what is already there and the people already there whether or not they are registered as official.