Human rights staff in Kenya join forces with partners to support COVID-19 prevention and response

Li Fung, Senior Human Rights Adviser at the Office of the UN Resident Coordinator in Kenya, during a celebration of Human Rights Day, December 2019, Nairobi, Kenya. OHCHR/Li Fung

On 13 March 2020, the Kenyan Ministry of Health confi­rmed the fi­rst case of infection by COVID-19 in Nairobi, Kenya's capital. Since then, 582 cases have been confirmed in 16 counties across the nation, with 26 deaths and 190 recoveries.

From the beginning of the outbreak, human rights impacts, including socio-economic and gender aspects, were rapidly felt by communities, particularly within informal settlements and vulnerable households. With the imposition of a nightly curfew from 27 March 2020, the manner of enforcement of emergency measures by police amplifi­ed negative human rights impacts, and led to deaths, injuries, sexual and gender-based violence and hundreds of arrests.

Li Fung is the Senior Human Rights Advisor to the UN Resident Coordinator in Kenya. Since mid-March, she and her colleagues have worked with the UN Country Team, civil society, the national human rights institution and Government stakeholders to explore and respond to human rights dimensions of the COVID-19 crisis.

We asked Li to describe how the pandemic has affected human rights work and how UN Human Rights and its partners are supporting the Kenyan Government's response to the pandemic.

How has COVID-19 affected your work?

Personally, and as a team, we have had to adapt very quickly to different ways of working. For example, working remotely from home – whilst we are not locked down, we do not have very much movement. In this context, a key concern is how to keep up the team spirit, maintain good communication, work together and remain focused on the same goals. It is also important to try to support each other, particularly those who can't work remotely, through these difficult circumstances.

It has been challenging because some of our planned activities, which involved capacity-building activities for human rights organisations and defenders, were not able to proceed because of restrictions on movement. So we have had to look at how to reprioritize and adapt what we were already doing to respond to this new context.

What is UN Human Rights doing to protect people's rights during this pandemic?

What we have done is to try to hone what we were already doing to be able to respond quickly, and build on existing partnerships. As a Senior Human Rights Advisor to the Resident Coordinator, a large part of the work has been using human rights analysis to influence the UN Country Team approach and response. UN Human Rights was part of the Flash Appeal for Kenya that was launched in early April, and I am pleased to say that human rights monitoring, documentation and reporting is a key area of the governance response, and part of the overall COVID-19 response. It is very important to recognise that we cannot effectively fight this pandemic and address its impacts if we do not know what the situation is on the ground, and how it affects different communities and groups.

We also built on an existing partnership with a network of grassroots human rights defenders, the Social Justice Centres Working Group. We had worked with them a couple of months ago on monitoring the right to water in informal settlements in Kenya. This was very timely because, as we know, handwashing and the right to water are key to COVID-19 prevention. Right now, we are partnering with this network of defenders to monitor the human rights impacts of the crisis in 24 informal settlements across eight counties – looking at rights to water, housing and health, at socio-economic impacts and how families are coping, at gender impacts and increasing sexual and gender-based violence. A key issue is excessive use of force and violence by police - a longstanding concern in informal settlements - and analysing how this is playing out in the enforcement of the nightly curfew and emergency measures.

We are also continuing existing work on sexual and gender-based violence. Our work has focused on prevention of and response to sexual and gender-based violence in electoral contexts, but we have tried to tailor this to respond to the current COVID context. We have unfortunately seen a big spike in sexual and gender-based violence, including domestic violence. For survivors, there are not many safe places to go and little clarity on available response mechanisms. Now we are working with networks of survivors of sexual violence to help facilitate these responses.

Prior to COVID-19, we had an ongoing engagement with the police, prosecution and police oversight authorities on strengthening the investigation and prosecution of human rights violations. These partnerships have been vital to be able to have open discussions about issues such as guidelines regulating the enforcement of emergency measures, and ensuring that investigations of complaints regarding police excesses are moving forward.

We are also working closely with the national human rights institution and civil society to support efforts on coordination, monitoring and timely responses - and to advocate for the importance of their role in a human rights-based response to COVID-19.

What have been the biggest challenges and lessons learned thus far during the pandemic?

COVID-19 has just brought to the fore the existing human rights challenges in Kenya such as huge inequalities, excessive use of force by police, arbitrary arrests - which are linked to corruption, on a small scale - widespread sexual and gender-based violence, and impunity. In terms of lessons learned, I think this is a key one for the Government and for the international community – if we don't address these systemic human rights issues in normal times, then in times of crisis, for example the COVID-19 pandemic, natural disasters or political and civil unrest, these issues will only be further entrenched.

The importance of partnerships is one of the key lessons for our team and me personally. Having a diverse range of partnerships has been critical to be connected to the realities on the ground, to influence actions on different levels, and to raise difficult issues with actors who might not otherwise be open to such conversations.

Flexibility and adaptability are also lessons learned, because if we have a set way of doing things, we will not be able to respond to the changing situation on the ground. We have had to look at different ways of working - not just personally in terms of remote working while taking care of home schooling - but also to be able to deliver as a team and to support our partners.

Why is it important to stand together, for human rights, during this pandemic?

Only a human rights-based approach will be able to respond effectively to this pandemic, globally and in a country context. Responses will only be effective if they adopt a whole of society approach, addressing public health issues, but also social protection and providing for the needs of the most vulnerable, who don't have access to water, who cannot self-isolate and who cannot afford to eat if they do not work. A human rights-based approach is essential to better equip communities to ride out the crisis and emerge at the other end of this pandemic, without undercutting the development gains that countries have invested in for decades.

It is also very clear that the response has to be conducted in full respect of human rights and the rule of law. If emergency measures actually end up putting communities and individuals at greater risk or economic hardship, they will be ineffective and may even increase the risk of broader social unrest.

Personally, I believe it's important to stand together to show that we are all working in partnership - within the UN family, with Government, international partners, civil society and directly with grassroots human rights defenders to make their voices heard, to make their voices count and ensure they are able to participate and shape the response in their communities. 

8 May 2020


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