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Kenyan Officials Must Protect the Right to Protest, Prevent Sexual Violence Amid Unrest: PHR

With mounting unrest across the country, Kenyan officials should immediately deescalate tensions and abide by international human rights law, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) said today. PHR is gravely concerned about excessive force deployed by security forces against demonstrators over recent months as well as the potential for an increase in sexual violence.  

“Under both Kenyan and international law, all people have the right to peaceful assembly and protest,” said Michele Heisler, MD, MPA, medical director at PHR and professor of internal medicine and public health at the University of Michigan. “We condemn the wanton and disproportionate force used by authorities against protestors and bystanders. The deployment of live ammunition and indiscriminate use of dangerous crowd-control weapons like rubber bullets and tear gas have had devastating health consequences, including both severe injuries and deaths.”   

“There is a stark risk for sexual violence amid the unrest so the Government of Kenya must act now to prevent and respond to any cases of sexual and gender-based violence,” said Naitore Nyamu-Mathenge, LLM, MA, PHR Kenya head of office. 

“Officials must also uphold the right to peaceful protest as provided in Kenya’s Constitution and refrain from use of excessive force,” said Nyamu-Mathenge. “We call for immediate, independent investigations into the deaths and injuries of protestors in Kenya, as well as full accountability for those responsible.” 

Widespread use of excessive force has been reported in Kenya over recent weeks, including an incident in which some 53 primary school children were hospitalized after security forces deployed tear gas in a Nairobi classroom. Up to 23 people have reportedly been killed during the protests, according to the UN Human Rights Office

“We know from situations of conflict and unrest in Kenya and around the world that sexual violence all too often both follows and fuels violence,” said Nyamu-Mathenge. “The protests and unrest that followed Kenya’s past general elections led to horrific waves of sexual violence perpetrated by security forces and non-state actors; we must not allow history to repeat itself. The Kenyan government is on notice for the heightened risk of sexual violence during periods of political instability and is obliged now to act swiftly to protect civilians from all forms of sexual violence.”

“Political leaders must act to prevent sexual violence from occurring, including by making clear to their constituencies that sexual violence will not be tolerated, and committing to hold those who perpetrate such crimes to account,” said Nyamu-Mathenge. “All survivors must be supported with trauma-informed, survivor-centered care and services.” 

PHR has worked in Kenya since 2007 and the PHR Kenya office leads a wide range of research, advocacy, and capacity strengthening work. To date, PHR experts and our partners in Kenya have trained thousands of medical, legal, law enforcement, and justice professionals to use forensic science to collect, document, investigate, and prosecute cases of sexual violence. PHR also continues to pursue accountability for perpetrators and reparations for survivors of the 2007-2008 election-related sexual violence, including through a landmark legal case currently in appeals.  

For decades, PHR has also documented the severe health and human rights tolls of crowd-control weapons, including many of the weapons being deployed against protestors in Kenya. 

More than 119,000 people were injured by tear gas and other chemical irritants during protests around the world since 2015, while at least 2,190 people were injured by rubber bullets and other types of kinetic impact projectiles, according to a March 2023 investigation by PHR and the International Network of Civil Liberties Organizations (INCLO). The study features insights from the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC), an INCLO member, as well as a case study on tear gas use in Kenya. The report also offers detailed recommendations and new guidance on pre-deployment of crowd-control weapons, including design, trade, testing, legal review, and procurement; on the use of force and deployment of various types of crowd-control weapons; and on post-deployment actions, including medical assistance to the injured and accountability for abuses. The report provides an overview of the international laws and standards around use of force and crowd-control weapons, as well as insights from past implementation of these laws and experiences in the field.  

PHR calls on Kenyan authorities to abide by domestic and international laws and standards during the ongoing protests and to protect the right to peaceful assembly.

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a New York-based advocacy organization that uses science and medicine to prevent mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. Learn more here.

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