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Nairobi, 5 July 2023: Amnesty International Kenya welcomes the opportunity to come before the Senate Adhoc Committee today.

Amnesty International Kenya, alongside Haki Africa, Muhuri and other human rights organisations, condemned the gross human rights violations arising from the mass starvation, suffocation, strangulation, and blunt force trauma of hundreds of Kenyan citizens.

As of June 27, 338 citizens, including 201 adults, 117 children and 20 unidentified bodies, have been recovered. It is simply Kenya’s worst massacre criminally perpetuated during peacetime and by religious leaders.

As a rule of law organisation, Amnesty International Kenya believes that the state has an obligation to protect vulnerable groups from all forms of prejudice, discrimination, and violence, even when perpetrated under the constitutional freedom of the right to worship.

The State massively failed in its obligation to protect the rights of hundreds in Shakahola, and there must be consequences for both officers and their commanding officers in the Interior Ministry, intelligence and security services charged with protecting Kenyans.

Inexcusably, Good News International Church founder Paul Mackenzie was released with no follow-up after being arrested and charged with radicalisation as far back as 2017. Repeated concerns and even movies by Kenyans (Millet, 2019) with the radicalisation of followers by several Christian and Muslim leaders have seen no evidence of effective oversight by security agencies or funding and support for countering violent extremism by national or local civic, religious, or business organisations.

The country seems to have left civic education and CVE programming to non-Kenyan donors to fund. We have now suffered catastrophically for this.

Balancing the right to life and safety with the freedom of worship

Amnesty International Kenya advises the Senate Adhoc Committee to avoid a knee-jerk reaction to the Shakahola massacre and carefully weigh several constitutional articles within the Bill of Rights.

The Shakahola Massacre demonstrates state failure to prevent at least seven human rights violations enshrined in our constitution. They include right to life (Art.26), Dignity (28), Freedom and Security of the Person (29), Privacy (31), Freedom of Conscience and religion (32). Freedom of Media (34) and Economic and Social Rights (43).

While the state lapses must be investigated and individual and where necessary group culpability for omissions and commissions that have led this catastrophe, we urge the Senate to not infringe on the full protection and realisation of the freedom of conscience, religion, thought, belief, and opinion as enshrined in Article 32 of the constitution.

Internationally, the freedom of conscience, religion, thought, belief, and opinion is protected under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights and the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief. Article 18(2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights prohibits using coercion to sway one’s religious beliefs or opinions.

We are alive to the fact that this right can be restricted by law to protect the public and enhance the realisation of other rights, including life, safety of Kenyans, education, access to healthcare and free will. We reiterate that the restrictions can only be imposed by law and in accordance with human rights standards.

The Senate Ad hoc Committee legal, policy and administrative recommendations must be farmed within principles governing a just, fair, and democratic society and abide with international human rights standards.

a) Right to life and Protection from Torture.

 As of June 27, 339 bodies have been recovered from the Shakahola Forest, representing the most tragic violation of the right to life. The camp had appointed marshals to prevent people from escaping or returning to their decision to join the religious camp. Prevention from leaving the camp amounts to restricting the right/protection from torture and the right to protect their human dignity. All persons have the right to live and to live free from torture and degrading treatment.

b) Right to health

Paul Mackenzie introduced firm beliefs and teachings to his followers, including children, to block access to medical attention, a basic human right. This went against protecting persons from harmful practices in the name of religious practice.

c) Education

Children in the fasting camp were prevented from attending school, limiting their constitutionally protected rights to education and development. The Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief permits the limitation of any religious beliefs or practices that affect a child’s well-being, including physical, mental and developmental well-being.

d) Extreme ascetic practices- denial of food, water, sleep

Followers of Paul Mackenzie were prevented from accessing food, water or even adequate sleep to fast continuously, having been deceived that it was the fastest way to meet their savior. This amounts to extreme practices prohibited in the Convention on Civil and Political Rights, which advocates for religious practices which do not restrict the enjoyment of other rights.

Averting human rights violations and preventing religious organisations from engaging in the indoctrination of their followers.

a) Stress assessment and timely response by authorities to reports on threats or human rights violations.

The Senate must recommend clear recommendations that hold Government officers and civilians who are responsible for the system human right lapses in Shakahola directly accountable. With government local leadership and intelligence agencies, the Shakahola massacre should not have occurred. The government should strengthen its agencies and build capacity to ensure early detection and timely response to threats to freedom of religion and excesses. Additionally, the Communications Authority should conduct background checks and proper screening to ensure that religious organisations airing their services have the right approvals from the Registrar of Societies.

Reports indicate that reports about Goodnews International Ministries were made to the Criminal Investigation agencies. This can be done by introducing helplines where individuals can report extreme religious activities or limitations of their rights, including involuntary detention or indoctrination.

State agencies should also utilise existing criminal laws to lawfully initiate prosecution of religious leaders who go beyond lawful limits in exercising freedom of religion. These cases should be prosecuted in accordance with the law and constitutional principles on fair trial to the end. Premature dropping and abandonment of these trials should be discouraged.

b) Legal and Policy Proposals

The Senate Adhoc committee must audit and enquire why several years after the enactment of the National Coroners Service Act, the Attorney General has failed to operationalize the Atc. An independent, well-resourced forensic coroner would have been a key resource for the Government in Shakahola. As Amnesty International Kenya, we must ask, if the tens of bodies found floating down the Yala River, Siaya county and the hundreds of bodies found in Shakahola are not enough evidence for the need to operationalize this office, what will be?

Amnesty International Kenya does not call for further limitation of the freedom of conscience, belief, religion, and opinion. However, should this committee decide to explore legal measures, they should observe, promote, protect, respect, and fulfil the right to the widest extent.

The law, if any, must be contextualised in the changing religious landscape. The nature of limitation must be clear, consistent, and comprehensible, described and drafted within a sense of fairness, human rights protection, and justiciability principles rooted in national and international human rights law.

This committee should encourage discussions around submitting a statement on the doctrine of faith, funding sources, church leaders and activities engaged, and guidelines on the training and certification of religious leaders. The discussion should include proposals on self-regulation mechanisms and the role of the registrar of societies’ office in oversight, among others.

c) Building resilience of societies by encouraging constructive dissent and promoting civic education.

Civic intelligence is one of the most efficient ways of countering prejudice and religious extremism. It should be noted that sexism, ableism, classism, and heterosexism is on the rise in Kenya, fueled by majoritarianism against minorities. After introducing anti-discriminatory modules into formal education systems, governments like Algeria, have invited religious scholars worldwide to challenge the spread of religious indoctrination. Bangladesh successfully introduced academic discourses as an intervention to the country’s extravagant interpretation of Islamic teachings.

Social media should be used to spread awareness and house discussions and campaigns on the freedom of religion, conscience, and belief. Strategies should be implemented to counter propaganda and hardline positions inconsistent with the spirit of human rights.

Attempts to restrict media and human rights organisations during the recovery of bodies does not assist the Government to avoid the charge of a cover up and once again, grave issues swept under the national attention, allows impunity and repetition to thrive.

d) Address underlying issues, including socio-economic problems, to protect people from vulnerabilities associated with religious excesses.

Historical injustices such as land grabbing, and other inequalities are major drivers of violent extremism. The government must create jobs and provide basic social services such as access to healthcare and food. Health problems and hopelessness are risk factors. The government must work with the community, business, and civic organisations to realise economic and social rights.

e) Rehabilitation through counselling and training.

Saudi Arabia introduced a system with a Social and Economic Committee, which helped people reform from violence, adapt to the social changes and provide psychological support come back to their families. The system also had a religious sub-committee that engaged in dialogues about religious teachings.

Conclusion

Amnesty International Kenya earnestly appeals to this committee to take decisive action to protect the rights, specifically minorities such as those who practice traditional religion, from infringement of the freedom of religion. Amnesty International Kenya recommends carefully crafting solutions to balance the right to freedom of religion and other rights.

Amnesty International Kenya reiterates its unwavering dedication to social justice and creating a human rights conscience and all-inclusive society. We appreciate the work being done by the committee, human rights organisations, law enforcement agencies and the media to see that justice is delivered to the survivors of the Shakahola tragedy and families of the many victims.

Irũngũ Houghton

Amnesty International Kenya Section Executive Director

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