Last month PEN Kenya Centre in collaboration with Centre for Justice Governance and Environmental Action held a training workshop for defenders of human rights at Darajani Hotel (Bridge Hotel on the island of Mombasa. It is rare to find a writers body collaborating with a human rights organization to carry out an exercise of this nature. However, one thing that is not known to many, is that PEN International of which PEN Kenya is a chapter, has a specific mandate to promote and protect the right to freedom of expression through one of its standing committees, the Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC). The Chair of PEN Kenya WiPC, Omtatah Okoiti is a leading human rights defender in the country. Omtatah is a man who wears many caps; he is also a leading creative writer with a number of titles to his name, some of which are school set texts in different countries in Africa.
This workshop was held against a backdrop of violation of human rights in a place called Owino Uhuru village on the outskirts of Mombasa City where a company has been polluting the environment unabated leading to loss of livelihoods and health complications by residents of the area. Participants were being trained to defend the rights of people living within the polluted community.
PEN Kenya President Khainga O’Okwemba set the ball rolling by first introducing the PEN team, giving a brief history of PEN International, its mandate and achievements, the work of PEN Kenya after which he fielded questions from trainees.
Omtatah who was the key facilitator of the workshop took a much broader approach to the subject where he almost waded into everything concerning human rights; need, necessity, history, theories, proponents, challenges, tools and so on. He emphasized the need to view aspects such as torture, corruption and poverty, not just as mere challenges but as instances of violation of human rights.
During the plenary sessions, participants freely discussed human rights issues at the Kenyan Coast and a major concern zeroed in on the shoot to kill order to the police that has elicited a heated debate among residents of the coast region in recent times. While giving a clarification on the matter, Omtatah noted that there are certain rights that cannot be limited but the right to life is not one of them. He enumerated them as freedom from slavery or servitude, freedom from torture, right to a fair trial and right to harbus corpus which stipulates that suspect cannot be held for more than 24 hours. Nonetheless, he noted that the government has a duty to protect all her citizen’s right to life.
There is a misconceived opinion among many that human rights belong to people who have not committed any crime.Omtatah clarified that human rights do not belong to us because we are good or bad but because we are human beings. He says “Even if you murder a hundred people you do not lose your human rights”.
One of the most controversial actions of human rights activists in the recent past is the parading of pigs at the gate of parliament buildings. To some people, it was a blatant abuse of animal rights. But the activists think otherwise; listen to Omtatah on this issue, “I come from Busia where oxen are used to plough. Feeding a pig in Parliament and using oxen to plough, which one is an abuse of animal rights? Human beings have always used animals as utilities.”
Omtatah also emphasized to participants the need to familiarize themselves with the constitution since it is a fundamental weapon of defense at the disposal of human rights activists. That comment easily reminds one of the age old legal creeds that posit that “Ignorance is no defense.” He urged them to constantly refer to the document as a way of strengthening their mandate as human rights defenders.
Another issue that emerged during the workshop is that administrators have no business posing as supervisors of human rights issues. Omtatah stressed that failure to understand the constitution would further a situation where citizens are treated as slaves. In this regard, he quoted the right to information which is enshrined in article 35 of the Constitution of Kenya.
The Executive Director of the Centre for Justice Governance and Environmental Action Phyllis Omido, in her closing remarks paid glowing tribute to PEN Kenya and Okiya Omtatah for bolstering the spirit of fighting human rights abuses at the coast. She noted that Mombasa has few human rights defenders and expressed hope that the training initiative will be an ongoing process. PEN Kenya was represented in this event by its President Khainga O’Okwemba, Jacob Oketch, the treasurer and Alexander Nderitu the deputy secretary general.
Jacob Oketch is a poet and journalist and is serving
Treasurer of PEN Kenya Centre