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Towards Humane and Dignifying Lives;The Promise of Human Rights: A Kenyan Perspective

All humans have equal rights, and they all matter. Photo by Miko Guziuko on Unsplash.

Author:Brian Kibet

“Human Rights are not country specific. They are not a reward for good behavior, or particular to certain era or social group. They are inalienable entitlements for all people, at all times and everywhere, 365 days a year.” ZeidRaad Al Hussen[1]

Why would a top United Nations official emphasise on the inviolability of human rights? Why do Human Rights Campaigners make a lot of noise when some of these rights are violated? Is it right for people to picket when they feel their rights are violated? And above all, why do human rights matter? This article endeavours to answer these questions. Its objective is to show that human rights ensure the human aspect in all of us is recognised and that standing up in defense of human rights is humanistic. In doing so it begins by analysing the theories on application of human rights. It goes ahead to show how human rights have been incorporated in Kenyan laws. It proceeds to give a critical appraisal as to how human rights ensure that Kenyans live better lives. It then concludes.

Human Rights have been conceptualised under two prominent theories, the cultural relativism theory and the universalism theory. The cultural relativism theory contends that moral standards across the globe are relative to the cultures from which they are derived. As such, generalisation of human rights as all-embracing and standard among all humans only seeks to “globalise western values”[2].  In this regard, they call for redefining of human rights to mean that which is moral and acceptable within a given social cultural aspect. Universalism on the other hand put out that human rights are inherent nature and as such should be applied in a way that is acceptable to all cultures[3]. This notion is based on the belief in the indivisibility of human rights.

I find the universalism theory more convincing. To my mind, being humane to another human is a virtue that is common to all well-meaning persons anywhere on earth. The demand of human rights is tolerance to opinions and sentiments of others as well according persons the opportunity to raise concerns when there are any. Therefore, Human rights should apply equally and in a standard manner across the globe and should be realised immediately in all communities worldwide. The United Nations Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR) is the document that best exemplifies the spirit of the universalism theory of human rights.

On 10th December 1948, the UDHR was adopted as resolution number 217 by the United Nations General Assembly then sitting in Paris, France. Considered the harbinger of the fundamental freedoms and inalienable rights we enjoy today, the UDHR established the concepts of human dignity and equal value of all persons among others as the “common standard of achievements for all peoples and all nations”[4].  Today these concepts remain so and are enshrined in many declarations and are ensconced in swathes of legislations and constitutions globally.

The UDHR affirms that human rights have a universal character and apply to all humans with no prejudice to distinctions of any kind like sex, colour, social origin, language and religion. The provisions set out in the UDHR have been co-opted in the Constitution of Kenya, 2010 in chapter four which is titled “The Bill of Rights”. It asserts, among others, the bare minimums expected of those handling the affairs of other with regards to dignity and the entitlements of the citizen as a human being.

It succeeds in doing so in a bipartite manner. First it provides for the economic and social rights[5]. This ambit grants persons the right to safe working spaces, clean environment, and basic necessities like food, healthcare and housing as well as safety nets to cushion the vulnerable persons[6]. Secondly, it gives Kenyans civil and political rights[7] which include the right to assembly, right to fair trial, freedom from torture and illegal detention[8], among others. The constitution goes ahead to make it the fundamental duty of the state to ensure that every state organs promotes and fulfils the rights and fundamental freedoms as provided from in the constitution.[9]

The discrepancies in opportunities and our abilities as human beings are bound to create material inequality amongst us. That is why there exists the rich, the middle class, and the poor in our societies. This notwithstanding, all people’s lives have equal value and are entitled to same levels of dignity and respect. That is why all persons are equal before the law and have equal rights. Human rights therefore arise as a shield to protect the vulnerable groups in our communities from being profiled and targeted. This is the reason why legislations that protect the rights of ethnic minorities and other disadvantaged and minority groups are being enacted world over.

Human Rights accord everyone their basic needs that sustain life. Everyone needs adequate food, affordable housing, access to quality healthcare, clean water and decent clothing in order to maintain reasonable levels of dignity and to live productive and full lives. The promise of the economic and social rights aspect of human rights is that even the “lowest” of our society can easily afford these basic needs. Human rights thereby provide a safety net of some kind that ensures that poverty does not dehumanise human beings.

Climate change continues to wreak havoc globally as persons are displaced by raising sea and lake levels, droughts and floods. As a result, lives and livelihoods have been lost causing distress and untold suffering in many communities. The right to safe and clean environments which for an integral part of human rights seek to ensure that the powers that be ensure that development is sustainable and conserves and protects the environment. In the same vein, it calls for more action in the mitigation of the effects of climate change.

Moreover, environmental rights also empower persons to sue companies that pollute their air, water and land. Residents of Owino Uhuru slums in Mombasa successfully sued for compensation for lead poisoning, and were awarded Ksh.1.3 Billion from a lead smelter who used to recycle lead acids batteries[10]. Though the decision has since been appealed, it portrays human rights as a sword with which persons can fight against the destruction of the planet they call home. Consequently, human rights are critical in the fight against pollution and climate change generally.

In a world where it not uncommon for those in power to exercise the same in villainy where corruption and plunder of public resources is a norm, human rights come in handy to check on these excesses. The right to assembly,  picket and demonstrate in a peaceful manner provide the much-needed avenue to call out on leader and in some case dethrone despots and inept leaders. On such instance was in Sudan where the masses deposed President Omar Al Bashir through demonstrations. As such rights offer a means for the people to exercise their sovereign power directly. In this sense, Human Rights are the vanguard for the push for the transparency and accountability by governments anywhere on earth.

It is noteworthy that if persons are unequal, then no amount of equal treatment can overcome the disadvantage. By making all persons equal, Human Rights provide the level playing field necessary for the amelioration of the disadvantaged in our communities. As a shield of the vulnerable, human rights seek to bend the arch of the moral universe toward justice, dignity and liberty to all humans and as a sword of the have-nots, human rights provide avenues for their plights to be heard and acted upon.

Much as the tasks towards the attainment of the respect of human rights is gargantuan, never are we absolved of our obligation to ensure their entrenchment in the society so that they can apply to all people, at all times and everywhere, 365 days a year.


  • Zeid Raad Al Hussein served as United Nations Human Rights High Commissioner from 2014-2018
  • Richard A. Wilson, Human Rights, Culture & Context, Anthropological Perspectives, Pluto Press 1997
  • Karen Musalo, When Rights and Cultures Collide. Markkula Centre, Santa Clara University , 2015
  • United Nation Declaration on Human Rights, 1948
  • These rights are also enshrined in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 1976. This convention forms part of Kenyan Laws vide Article 2(6) of the Constitution of Kenya, 2010 that provides that international conventions and treaties ratified by Kenya shall form part of Kenyan Laws
  • Articles 59, 42 and 43 respectively in The Constitution of Kenya, 2010
  • These rights are availed to Kenyans through the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 1976.
  • Articles 37, 50 and 29 respectively in The Constitution of Kenya, 2010
  • Article 21 (1) of the Constitution of Kenya 2010
  • Center for Justice, Governance and Environmental Action V Attorney General & 229 Others [2020] eKLR





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