UK Lockdown in Perspective: Kenya and Honduras (PBI UK)

Georgina Pressdee

On the 26th March 2020, the UK government imposed lockdown measures on England. It did so via the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020, made under the Public Health Act 1984.[1] This was met with outcry by many. Most notably Lord Sumption who, in an article for The Sunday Times, criticised the government for its unnecessary restriction of our liberties.[2] The human rights organisation, Liberty, has also been fervently outspoken against what it sees as a dangerous encroachment on our civil liberties. The initial measures brought in by the UK government restricted freedom of movement by prohibiting leaving the home without a “reasonable excuse” and banning most public gatherings.[3] This was enforced by a set of powers given to the police, amongst others, to issue Fixed Penalty Notices (FPNs) to those they suspected of lockdown offences.[4] Liberty has been particularly critical of the extensive powers granted to the police.[5] Liberty claims that the government’s ambiguity over police powers under the Health Protection Regulations have led to incidents of police acting unreasonably and possibly unlawfully.[6]

This article does not seek to address these claims directly. However, it does seek to put them in perspective. Looking at certain situation overseas, and the lived realities that the mainstream media seldom reports, provides us with an opportunity to reflect on the privileges that we do have before sounding the alarm of human rights. Peace Brigades International UK (PBI UK) is an NGO that supports defenders of human rights across the globe. They recently hosted a series of webinars in which the human rights defenders they support spoke out about the increased struggles they have faced because of their governments’ responses to coronavirus. This article will focus on the situations in two countries from which these human rights defenders originate: Kenya and Honduras.

Kenya

Gacheke Gachihi has been a social justice activist in Kenya for over a decade. He founded Bunge la Mwananchi, an organic social movement, and is also a coordinator of the Mathare Social Justice Centre.[7] In PBI UK’s webinar, “Government and Grassroot Responses in Kenya”, he spoke of the brutal enforcement of the Kenyan government’s coronavirus measures.[8] On the 25th March, President Uhuru Kenyatta announced a “dusk till dawn” curfew, from 7pm-5am. On the face of it, the curfew appears far less intrusive than the total lockdown imposed by the UK government a day later. But the critical difference is how these measures have been enforced.

At the beginning of June, the Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA), a civilian organisation created to monitor police misconduct, reported that at least 15 people had been killed by the police and 31 injured since the curfew was imposed.[9] Missing Voices KE, recorded an even higher total of 17 people killed by the police while “enforcing COVID-19 regulations”.[10] The most heartbreaking example of police violence during the pandemic surfaced after only the first night of Kenya’s curfew. Yassin Moyo, only 13 years old, was shot dead as he stood on a balcony watching police enforce the curfew.[11] The officer responsible, Duncan Ndiema Ndiwa, has now been charged with his murder, but has since been released on bail after pleading not guilty.[12]

The lack of convictions for perpetrators of police brutality in Kenya is almost as shocking as the crimes themselves. Since 2011, when the IPOA was formed, less than 1% of the cases they have pursued have resulted in convictions.[13] Accountability for the Kenyan police force is as non-existent as the justice for their victims. This represents a complete disregard for some of Kenya’s most basic obligations under the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights. Most obviously, this police violence is a gross violation of the Kenyan people’s right to life (Article 4), and freedom from cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment and treatment (Article 5).[14] Police brutality in Kenya is not a human rights crisis that is unique to the pandemic – it is endemic itself. A 2009 investigation by Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, and arbitrary executions, reported evidence of widespread police killings, which he could only attribute to institutional practice – they were not the work of a few officers gone rogue.[15]Since 2013, over 10,000 cases of police brutality have been reported to the IPOA.[16] Only 6 convictions have resulted.[17]

Honduras

Across the globe, in Honduras, PBI UK heard from Dina Meza. Dina is an independent journalist, director of the human rights organisation ASOPODEHU, and founder and President of PEN Honduras, an organisation supporting journalists at risk.[18] Dina expressed her concern for journalists in Honduras. She described how they have been targeted, beaten and imprisoned by the Honduran army, subject to what amounts to house arrest so that they cannot work, and blocked from publishing their stories.[19]

On 16th March, the Honduran president, Juan Orlando Hernández, published a decree instituting a state of emergency for 7 days. This restricted several rights under the Honduran constitution, including the right to free expression without censorship (Article 72).[20] It was only after national and international pressure that the government amended the decree on 21st March to re-establish this constitutional guarantee.[21] It took a public warning from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights office in Honduras for the government to allow journalists to begin circulating again, with no provision made to that effect for human rights defenders.[22] Honduras remains a dangerous place for journalists and human rights defenders like Dina, who faces daily harassment and intimidation. Dina has had her phone tapped, receives regular anonymous threatening phone calls, is followed by cars without number plates, and has had armed men visit her house to intimidate her.[23] Comité de Familiares Detenidos-Desaparecidos en Honduras have documented 45 instances of human rights defenders being attacked, harassed or subject to reprisal for their work since the pandemic took hold in Honduras.[24] The organisation also reported that seven journalists have been assaulted, detained and/or had their equipment confiscated and camera footage erased.[25] C-Libre recorded an even higher number of 11 violations against journalists who were covering the government response to the pandemic, all of which involved public officials attempting to restrict their work.[26] Just as with police brutality in Kenya, the persecution of the press in Honduras is not confined to the pandemic. In September 2019, CONADEH, the Honduran human rights ombudsmen, reported 79 journalist killings since October 2001, 91% of which remain unpunished.[27]

Undoubtedly, for some, lockdown in the UK will be devastating. Liberty has rightly highlighted how many of the UK’s most vulnerable and persecuted populations will suffer most as a result of lockdown and the powers conferred on our police to enforce it.[28] However, for many of us, it is worth reflecting on the privileges that we do have before jumping the gun on human rights. The stories of PBI UK’s human rights defenders should provide us with a sense of perspective. Perhaps oppression for the benefit of an authoritarian government ought not to be equated with sacrifice, at least arguably, for the benefit of a nation.

If you would like to support the work that PBI UK does in supporting human rights defenders across the globe, then you can get involved with PBI UK’s latest fundraiser, a raffle for an original Picasso linocut. PBI UK is asking students to sell 5 tickets and gain 10 likes on a post sharing information about the raffle. In return, students will be fast-tracked through PBI UK’s application procedure for volunteer placements next Summer. For more information:

https://www.facebook.com/events/223811978765510/?active_tab=discussion

https://www.peoplesfundraising.com/raffle/picasso-for-pbi

References: 

[1] Institute for Government, Instituteforgovernment.org, updated 22.07.20, accessed 03.08.30, https://www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/explainers/boris-johnson-plan-ease-coronavirus-lockdown

[2] Lord Sumption, (2020), ‘Set us free from lockdown, ministers, and stop covering your backs’, The Sunday Times, 17th May.

[3] Jennifer Brown, House of Commons Library, published 30.07.20, accessed 03.08.30, https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/cbp-8875/

[4] Ibid.

[5] Liberty, libertyhumanrights.org, accessed 03.08.30, https://www.libertyhumanrights.org.uk/issue/coronavirus-policing/

[6] Ibid.

[7] Peace Brigades International UK, peacebrigades.org, accessed 03.08.20, https://peacebrigades.org.uk/where-we-work/kenya/kenyan-human-rights-defender-gacheke-gachihi-visits-uk

[8] Peace Brigades International UK, peacebrigades.org, accessed 03.08.20, https://peacebrigades.org.uk/webinar-1-government-and-grassroots-responses-kenya

[9] Amanda Sperber, (2020), ‘‘They have killed us more than corona’: Kenyans protest against police brutality’, The Guardian, 9th June.

[10] April Zhu, (2020), ‘Kenya Turns Its Covid-19 Crisis into a Human Rights Emergency’, The New York Review, 22nd July.

[11] BBC News, bbc.co.uk, published 23.07.20, accessed 03.08.20, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-53150397

[12] April Zhu, (2020), ‘Kenya Turns Its Covid-19 Crisis into a Human Rights Emergency’, The New York Review, 22nd July.

[13] Rael Ombuor, Max Bearak, (2020), ‘Coronavirus: Kenya police kill at least 12 people in attempt to enforce curfew’, The Independent, 16th April.

[14] Article 4, African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights; Article 5, African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

[15] April Zhu, (2020), ‘Kenya Turns Its Covid-19 Crisis into a Human Rights Emergency’, The New York Review, 22nd July.

[16] Elijah Kanyi, bbc.co.uk, published 15.06.20, accessed, 03.08.20, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/world-africa-53025934/kenya-police-brutality-in-the-battle-against-coronavirus-in-mathare

[17] Ibid.

[18] Peace Brigades International UK, peacebrigades.org, accessed 03.08.20, https://peacebrigades.org.uk/who-we-protect/where-we-work/honduras/dina-meza

[19] Peace Brigades International UK, peacebrigades.org, accessed 03.08.20, https://peacebrigades.org.uk/webinar-2-defending-human-rights-under-lockdown-latin-america

[20] Civicus, monitor.civicus.org, published 22.05.20, accessed, 03.08.20, https://monitor.civicus.org/updates/2020/05/22/honduras-undue-restrictions-expression-and-police-abuse-emergency-powers-during-covid-19/

[21] Ibid.

[22] Lisa Haugaard, (2020), ‘Honduras: Repression in the Time of COVID-19’, Latin America Working Group, 22nd April.

[23] Peace Brigades International UK, peacebrigades.org, accessed 03.08.20, https://peacebrigades.org.uk/who-we-protect/where-we-work/honduras/dina-meza

[24] Civicus, monitor.civicus.org, published 22.05.20, accessed, 03.08.20, https://monitor.civicus.org/updates/2020/05/22/honduras-undue-restrictions-expression-and-police-abuse-emergency-powers-during-covid-19/

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Human Rights Watch, hrw.org, accessed 03.08.20, https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2020/country-chapters/honduras#803bf5

[28] Liberty, libertyhumanrights.org, accessed 03.08.20, https://www.libertyhumanrights.org.uk/fundamental/coronavirus/