Connect with us

Op-Eds

Cutting the Hand That Feeds: Is the UN Silencing the Voices of Farmers and Indigenous Communities?

3 min read.

More than 500 indigenous and farmer organisations across the continents have raised their voices to expose the UN’s Food Systems Summit as only advocating one food system—so they’re being silenced.

Published

on

Cutting the Hand That Feeds: Is the UN Silencing the Voices of Farmers and Indigenous Communities?
Download PDFPrint Article

The United Nations Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) invokes the UN Sustainable Development Goals to demonstrate its purpose—namely, goals 2.1 and 2.2 (to end hunger and malnutrition). At the same time, however, the summit is obstructing another of those goals: goal 2.3 (to increase resources for smallholder farmers).

Because of this contradiction, the summit, planned since 2019 to be held at the UN Headquarters in New York, will now be exclusively virtual (September 23), a measure intended to maximize control and minimize dissent. During the last year, more than 500 indigenous and farmer organizations across the continents have raised their voices to expose the summit as advocating only one food system, the one that is polluting the soil, water, and air, and killing vital pollinators.

In contrast, the food system that feeds 75 to 80 percent of the human population—smallholder farmers practicing biodiverse cropping (in line with the principles of agro ecology)—was only added to the agenda after months of criticism. Those in opposition to the summit say it is advancing industrial agriculture, which is the core problem, not solution, for addressing climate change, malnutrition, and hunger.

A second criticism is that corporations are trying to replace the UN system of one country-one vote with “stakeholders,” a euphemism that may sound inclusive but really only invites those “who think like us” to the table.  Smallholder farmers, who produce the majority of our food, are not invited.

This food summit is about the global business of agriculture, not the livelihoods of those who produce nutritious, biodiverse foods. Governments’ attempts to regulate global food corporations (e.g., labeling unhealthy foods, taxing sugar products) meet strong opposition from these industries. Yet the corporations profited massively from the 2008 food crisis and strengthened their global “food value chain,” contributing to the consequences that over 23 percent of Africans (282 million people) still go to bed hungry every night.

This focus is in stark contrast to the stated aims of the summit. As the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food explained in August 2021:

Hunger, malnutrition, and famine are caused by political failures and shortcomings in governance, rather than by food scarcity ….. How will the [Summit] outcomes identify the root cause of the crisis and hold corporations and other actors accountable for human rights violations?

A third criticism of the UN Food Systems Summit is that it heralds technological advances as the primary answer to overcoming continuing hunger in an era of climate change. Most of us applaud multiple revolutions in genetics while we queue for vaccines, but genetic manipulation of seeds threatens the future of food, because ownership of the technology controls ownership of the seed. Industrial agriculture expands corporate profits from commodification of seed (beginning early 20th century), from the financialization of seed (speculative trading, late 20th century) and continuing today, through the digitalization of seed.

To the industry, a seed is merely a genome, with its genes representing digital points. The genes can be cut and pasted (by enzymes, e.g., CRISPRcas9), much like we edit text.  A seed is no longer a living organism representing thousands 1000s of years of careful selection by expert farmers. For example, biologists today say they no longer need the germplasm of Oaxacan corn from Mexico to access its drought-resistant characteristics.

Promoters of these technologies rarely admit that they are very imperfect, with uncontrolled “off-target mutations.”  Further, a seed variety needs its biome to flourish. It is farmers who understand the intricate interactions, who experiment with changing micro-climates (often in one field) to cultivate adaptive seed varieties.

No farmer denies the importance of scientific advances. But industrial agriculture giants are denying the value of farmers and their knowledge, saying they no longer need them: digitalized seed can be planted, watered, fertilized, and harvested by machines, run via satellites (this is called “precision agriculture”). Taste is irrelevant, because it is chemically added as crops are processed into food products.

Success in derailing the “corporate capture” of UN processes (e.g., UN Committee on World Food Security) to address increasing hunger arises from global, organized resistance by smallholder farmers, pastoralists, and fisher folk. After appeals to transform the agenda, many of these farmers and advocates decided to boycott the summit. This “outside resistance” included African voices, who stated:

The current UNFSS process gives little space to traditional ecological knowledge, the celebration of traditional diets and cuisine . . . ….Indigenous and local community Africans have experience and knowledge relevant to the current and future food system. Any process or outcome that does not recognize this is an affront to millions of African food producers and consumers.

The “inside resistance” worked to advance farmers’ voices within the official pre-summit dialogues, holding a series of webinars among the farmers in Southern Africa, and then globally (July 28).  This trajectory was possible because of allied support within the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.  As stated by one of the convenors of these official dialogues, Andrew Mushita,  “African smallholder farmers are not beneficiaries of the corporate [agriculture] industry but rather co-generators of innovations and technologies adaptive to ecological agriculture, farmers’ needs—within the context of sustainable agriculture.”

To follow the end result of the summit, go here.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

Support The Elephant.

The Elephant is helping to build a truly public platform, while producing consistent, quality investigations, opinions and analysis. The Elephant cannot survive and grow without your participation. Now, more than ever, it is vital for The Elephant to reach as many people as possible.

Your support helps protect The Elephant's independence and it means we can continue keeping the democratic space free, open and robust. Every contribution, however big or small, is so valuable for our collective future.

By

Carol Thompson, political economist and professor emerita at Northern Arizona University, works with smallholder farmers' networks in Southern Africa.

Op-Eds

Sudan Dared to Be Free, Then the Military Arrived

A statement by organizations and individuals standing in solidarity with the people of Sudan, deeply concerned about, and strongly condemning the 25 October 2021 military coup in Sudan and the subsequent suspension of several provisions of the Constitutional Declaration.

Published

on

Sudan Dared to Be Free, Then the Military Arrived
Download PDFPrint Article

We stand in solidarity with the people of Sudan and we demand more resolute action from the African Union (AU), the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and the United Nations (UN)

We, the undersigned organizations and individuals, are deeply concerned about, and strongly condemn, the military coup in Sudan and the subsequent purported suspension of several provisions of the Constitutional Declaration; dissolution of the Sovereign Council, the Cabinet and of the Transitional Government of Sudan. We further condemn the arrest and detention of the Prime Minister, Abdalla Hamdok, his wife, five ministers and other government officials and leaders as well as civil society actors. These actions violatethe AU Shared Values and specific provisions of the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance regarding unconstitutional changes of government. We note that the military takeover has negative consequences for Sudan’s transition into a democracy, a journey that had a major turning point in 2019 when civilians got rid of dictator Omar Hassan Al-Bashir through a peoples’ revolution.

We also note with concern the switching off of the Internet and other communications channels, which has made it difficult for the Sudanese people to receive and send information within and outside of Sudan. We are also greatly troubled by the closure of the Sudanese airspace and land borders, and suspension of all flights. This has meant that no one can travel into or out of Sudan. These limitations on the rights and freedoms of the Sudanese people as well as other nationalities present in Sudan is in stark violation of both the Sudanese Constitution as well as African and International Human rights norms.

We are aware that many Sudanese, committed to democratic ideals that they relentlessly fought for, have taken to the streets to peacefully protest the military takeover. We are, however, alarmed by reports appearing in a section of the media of the killings, torture and injuries of some of the protesting civilians by sections of the military.

As African citizens and institutions from across the continent and its diaspora, we demand that:

  1. General Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman al-Burhan and the parts of the military leadership under his control immediately and unconditionally release Prime Minister Hamdok, his wife, the ministers, other government officials and members of civil society;
  2. This impugned military leadership transfers the leadership of Sudan back to the transitional government to operate as per the terms of the Political Agreement and the Constitutional Declaration of 17 July 2019 and 4 August 2019 respectively, and further that the entire provisions of Constitutional Declaration be respected and implemented;
  3. Patriotic soldiers, battalions and garrisons desist from participating in or supporting the illegal martial government in any way, and certainly refrain from interfering with or harming peaceful protestors.
  4. We call for the protection of civilians and the upholding of their right to protest and further call on the security forces to act with restraint in managing the public order situation in the Sudan. Specifically, we call on security forces to desist from use of force on civilians, as this is contrary to international law and also the various legal instruments created by the African Union;
  5. We demand that this military leadership also lifts the restrictions on Internet access and use to enable people to communicate freely and access information;
  6. We further demand that this military leadership also immediately opens up the airspace to enable travel into and out of the country without restrictions.

We note that the unconstitutional change of government that was perpetrated in Sudan has had a long build up, whose signs include the failed coup of 21 September 2021. The position of the African Union on Unconstitutional Change of Government is very clear, and requires an uncompromising rejection of such unconstitutional changes, the immediate suspension of the Member State in question, and immediate engagements, based firmly on AU law to reinstate democratic and legitimate government. We note with concern that, in the face of clear danger, the AU has dithered to implement this hard letter of the law on a few occasions in the last few years, a fact that might have encouraged the current situation in Sudan. While we are grateful that both the AU and IGAD provided initial public statements on the situation in Sudan, their statements were not strong enough. We also acknowledge that the Peace and Security Council of the African Union (AU-PSC) held a Session on Sudan and has suspended its Government in line with the applicable AU law. This is a positive first step. We reiterate that speaking clearly and strongly against the unconstitutional change of government is the only way in which large-scale violence and related human suffering can be averted.

As African citizens and institutions from across the continent and its diaspora, we therefore demand that AU and IGAD:

  1. Follow up on their initial Statements with more robust Statements that demonstrate the actions they have taken in the first 48 hours after the coup and that clearly lay out the obtaining law and the processes that they propose to take in the next few days;
  2. Confirm unequivocally to the people of Africa and the international community that Sudan currently stands suspended from the AU, pending these processes;
  3. Urgently convene the AU Peace and Security Council (AU-PSC) and take the necessary follow-up measures.

We note that the Horn of Africa is already very volatile and that should Sudan be allowed to succumb to military-instigated conflict against a resistant citzenry, not only will there be unnecessary bloodshed and human suffering, but this would also have profound regional peace and security repercussions, affecting neighbours like the Central African Republic (CAR), Chad, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and the rest of the East African region. We note the strong Statements already issued by the United Nations Secretary General and several members of the international community. We also acknowledge that the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has convened a Session on Sudan. We call upon the United Nations (UN) to: –

  1. Prioritise discussion and action on Sudan, respecting the aspirations and demands of the Sudanese people, and bearing in mind the potential ramification for the Horn and East Africa region.

As African citizens and institutions from across the continent and its diaspora, we will continue to be actively seized of this matter and will be making additional interventions and actions in the coming days. More importantly, we call upon all people around the world to unite and stand together with the brave Sudanese people to save and preserve their democratic transition and protect their human and peoples’ rights. We urge for peaceful demonstrations and protests outside Sudanese Embassies across the continent and worldwide.

Signatories

A – Institutions 

  1. Advocacy Network for Africa, Washington DC, USA
  2. AfricanDefenders (Pan African Human Rights Defenders Network)
  3. African Union Watch, Banjul, The Gambia
  4. African Women and Youth Initiative
  5. African Women’s Development and Communication Network (FEMNET)/ Réseau de Développement et de Communication des Femmes Africaines
  6. African Women Leaders Forum (AWLF), Zimbabwe
  7. Atrocities Watch Africa (AWA), Kampala, Uganda
  8. Chapter One Foundation, Lusaka, Zambia
  9. Coalition for an effective African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACC), Arusha, Tanzania
  10. Coalition Togolaise des Défenseurs des Droits Humains (CTDDH), Lomé, Togo
  11. DefendDefenders (East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project)
  12. Disability Amalgamation Community Trust (DACT), Zimbabwe
  13. DITSHWANELO – The Botswana Centre for Human Rights, Gaborone, Botswana
  14. Eastern Africa Youth Empowerment on Peace and Security
  15. Echoes of Women in Africa Initiatives, Nigeria
  16. HUDO Centre, Kampala, Uganda
  17. Human Rights Institute of South Africa (HURISA)
  18. Institut des Médias pour la Démocratie et les Droits de l’Homme (IM2DH), Lomé, Togo
  19. Institute for Young Women Development (IYWD), Zimbabwe
  20. International Refugee Rights Initiative (IRRI), Kampala, Uganda
  21. Inuka Kenya Ni Sisi!, Nairobi, Kenya
  22. Kamma Organization for Development Initiatives (KODI), Sudan
  23. Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC), Nairobi, Kenya
  24. Nawi – Afrifem Macroeconomics Collective, Nairobi, Kenya
  25. Network of Independent Commissions for Human Rights in North Africa
  26. Nubsud Human Rights Monitors Organization (NHRMO), Sudan
  27. OnetoAll Foundation, Meru, Kenya
  28. Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA), Johannesburg, South Africa
  29. Oromo Legacy Leadership and Advocacy Association
  30. Oromo Professionals Group (OPG), Washington DC
  31. Rape Hurts Foundation, Uganda
  32. Pan African Citizens Network (PACIN)
  33. Pan African Lawyers Union (PALU), Arusha, Tanzania
  34. Pan African Law and Justice Initiative, Kenya
  35. Panos Institute Southern Africa
  36. Plateforme de la Diaspora Tchadienne en Amerique
  37. Southern Defenders (Southern African Human Rights Defenders Network)
  38. Wakiso District Human Rights Committee , Uganda
  39. Yearning Voices Foundation (YVF)
  40. Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, Harare, Zimbabwe

B – Individuals 

  1. Abel K. Walendom, Co-Facilitator, Plateforme de la Diaspora Tchadienne en Amerique
  2. Abdalla Komi Kodi, Executive Director, Kamma Organization for Development Initiatives (KODI), Sudan
  3. Achieng’ Akena, PanAfricanist, Uganda
  4. Adaobi Egboka, Human Rights Lawyer, Nigeria
  5. Arnold Tsunga, Human Rights Lawyer, Zimbabwe
  6. Brian Tamuka Kagoro, Uhai Africa Ltd, Harare, Zimbabwe
  7. Bridget Musungu, Panafrican, Nairobi Kenya
  8. Bushra Gamar Hussein, Executive Director, HUDO Centre, Kampala, Uganda
  9. Bonaventure N’Coué MAWUVI, Journaliste et Défenseurs des Droits Humains, Lomé,Togo
  10. Chidi Anselm Odinkalu
  11. Chris Kwaja
  12. Danford M. Chirwa, Dean, UCT Law
  13. Donald Deya, Pan Africanist, Nairobi, Kenya
  14. Dzimbabwe Chimbga, Human Rights Lawyer, Zimbabwe
  15. Edigah Kavuravu, Human Rights Lawyer, Kenya
  16. Femi Falana SAN, Human Rights Lawyer, Nigeria
  17. Feyi Ogunade, Human Rights Lawyer
  18. George Kegoro, Lawyer, Nairobi, Kenya
  19. Gitahi Githuku, Human Rights Defender, Nairobi, Kenya
  20. Golda Keng, Advocacy and Campaigns Consultant, Yaoundé, Cameroon
  21. Hakima Haithar, International Development Consultant, Johannesburg, South Africa
  22. Ibrahima Kane: Ibrahima Kane, lawyer Senegal
  23. Irene Mwendwa, Lawyer, Pollicy Uganda
  24. Jok Madut Jok, Professor of Anthropology, Syracuse University and Director of The Sudd Institute
  25. Khabele Matlosa
  26. Martin Masiga, Africa Judges and Jurists Forum (AJJF)
  27. Martin Mavenjina, Constitutional and Human Rights Lawyer, Nairobi, Kenya
  28. Musa Mwenye, SC, Former Attorney General of the Republic of Zambia
  29. Nikiwe Kaunda, Mzuzu, Malawi
  30. Otto Saki, Zimbabwe
  31. Roland Ebole, Human Rights Lawyer, Nairobi, Kenya
  32. Roselyn Hanzi, Human Rights Lawyer, Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights
  33. Sarah Mukasa
  34. Sharon Nakandha, Lawyer, Uganda
  35. Siphosami Malunga, Executive Director, Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa
  36. Tiseke Kasambala, Chief of Party, Freedom House, Johannesburg, South Africa
  37. Vusumuzi Sifile, Lusaka, Zambia
  38. Washington Katema
Continue Reading

Op-Eds

Unlike the Rest of the UN, Is WHO (Finally) Taking Sexual Abuse Seriously?

A disturbing report on the sexual exploitation and abuse of women and children in the DRC has laid bare the failure of UN agencies to protect vulnerable populations.

Published

on

Unlike the Rest of the UN, Is WHO (Finally) Taking Sexual Abuse Seriously?
Download PDFPrint Article

It is extremely unfortunate that at a time when the World Health Organization (WHO) is spearheading a campaign to get people vaccinated against COVID-19, and pushing rich countries to donate their vaccines to low-income countries instead of hoarding them, it is confronted with revelations that suggest deep systemic failures within the global health agency that have allowed its employees to get away with sexual exploitation and abuse of vulnerable populations.

Last month, WHO released a report that confirmed that there was sexual abuse of women and children by WHO employees in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) during an outbreak of Ebola in the country’s North Kivu and Ituri provinces between 2018 and 2020. This report was the result of an independent commission’s investigations following an exclusive media report last year that found that dozens of women in the DRC had been sexually exploited by aid workers, including WHO employees.  The most disturbing revelation was that some of the perpetrators were medical doctors. Many of the abused women were offered jobs in exchange for sex; others were raped or coerced into having sex against their will. There were also stories of women being forced to have abortions after they were sexually abused. The independent commission stated that its findings showed that 21 of the 83 alleged perpetrators were WHO employees, and that “individual negligence” on the part of WHO staff may have amounted to “professional misconduct”.

This is not the first time that sexual abuse and exploitation of women and children by UN employees has been reported in the DRC. In 2004, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan ordered an investigation into sexual abuses by UN peacekeepers in the country after it became apparent that such abuse was widespread in this mineral-rich but conflict-ridden country.  The investigation detailed various forms of abuse, including trading sex for money and food. It was in the DRC that the term “peacekeeper babies” first emerged. Women who had given birth after being raped by UN peacekeepers spoke about being abandoned by both their families and the peacekeepers who had impregnated them. However, the report had little impact on the UN’s peacekeeping mission in the DRC – none of the perpetrators were brought to book nor were the victims compensated.

Sexual abuse of vulnerable populations, especially women and children, is particularly rampant in UN peacekeeping missions.  In 2017, the Associated Press revealed in an exclusive report that at least 134 Sri Lankan UN peacekeepers had exploited nine Haitian children in a sex ring from 2004 to 2007. Many of the victims were offered food or money after they were sexually violated. (These “sex-for-food” arrangements have also been reported in other countries experiencing conflict or disaster.) Although 114 of these peacekeepers were sent home after the report came out, none of them were prosecuted or court-martialled in their countries.

One reason why UN peacekeepers evade the consequences of their actions is that under the Status of Forces Agreement negotiated between the UN and troop-producing countries, UN peacekeepers fall under the exclusive jurisdiction of the country they come from. When cases of abuse are reported, they are either ignored by the countries, or the perpetrators are sent home—no questions asked.

Unfortunately, civilian UN staff who commit crimes such as rape also evade any legal action because the UN accords the UN and its employees immunity from prosecution. This immunity can only be waived by the UN Secretary-General, but the Secretary-General hardly ever waives this immunity even when there is overwhelming evidence against a UN staff member. This means that cases brought against UN employees cannot be tried in national courts, nor can the perpetrators be detained or arrested by national law enforcement agencies.  

At a press conference held last month, WHO’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, apologised to the victims of the abuse in the DRC at the hands of WHO employees and promised to take action to prevent such abuse from happening again. “I am sorry for what was done to you,” he said. “What happened to you should not happen to anyone.”

The head of WHO has also promised to review the organisation’s emergency response measures and internal structures and to discipline those staff members who fail to report cases of sexual exploitation and abuse. WHO member states have also called for an “immediate, thorough and detailed assessment of what went wrong”.

I have no doubt that Mr Ghebreyesus is serious about fixing a problem that has plagued the UN for decades. In fact, his response to the sexual abuse allegations is much more honest and sincere than the responses of other heads of UN agencies whose employees have been accused of allowing sexual exploitation and abuse to occur under their watch. One, he established an independent commission to look into the sexual abuse allegations, which rarely happens. (Most UN agencies either ignore the allegations or order an internal investigation, which invariably determines that the allegations “could not be substantiated”.) Two, he has publicly committed to undertake wholesale reforms in WHO’s structures and culture that allow sexual exploitation and abuse of vulnerable populations to go undetected, unreported and unpunished. Three, he has agreed to the independent commission’s recommendation that an independent monitoring group be set up within two months to ensure that the commission’s recommendations are enforced.

“What happened to you should not happen to anyone.”

Most UN agencies would not welcome such intense scrutiny of their operations by independent bodies, so WHO’s efforts in this regard are laudable.  WHO’s actions could also be attributed to the fact that, unlike other UN agencies that report to the General Assembly, WHO reports to the World Health Assembly that comprises delegates that have technical competence in health matters and represent their governments’ ministries of health. Because it is a specialised UN agency not governed by the General Assembly, WHO can establish its own rules without deferring to the General Assembly. In this sense, WHO enjoys relative autonomy from the UN system’s gargantuan and highly opaque bureaucracy.

Cover-ups and impunity 

WHO’s response is a far cry from the normal tendency of UN bosses to cover up cases of sexual abuse and exploitation taking place under the UN’s watch.  In 2014, for instance, when a senior UN official reported to the French government that French peacekeepers operating in the Central African Republic were sexually abusing boys as young as eight years old, his bosses at the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) responded by asking him to resign. When he refused to do so, they suspended him for “unauthorized disclosure of confidential information”, and, in a typical case of “shooting the messenger”, they directed their internal investigations towards him rather than towards the peacekeepers who had allegedly abused the children. This case, which received wide media coverage, did not lead to significant changes in how the UN handles sexual abuse cases. On the contrary, Anders Kompass, the UN official who reported the abuse, was retaliated against, and eventually left the organisation in frustration.

Cases of UN employees sexually abusing or harassing their colleagues are also brushed under the carpet. In 2018, for example, when an Indian women’s rights activist accused the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA)’s India representative of sexual harassment, the UN agency said that its preliminary investigations showed that her allegations could not be substantiated. The Code Blue Campaign, which tracks instances of sexual harassment and exploitation by UN employees, dismissed the findings of the investigation, calling them a “cover-up.” (Soon after the activist made her allegation, UNFPA evacuated the accused from India, which further muddied her case.)

This is not an isolated case. In 2004, when a staff member at the UN’s refugee agency accused the head of the organisation of sexual harassment, the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, dismissed her claims. Recently, a woman working at UNAIDS lost her job soon after she filed a complaint of sexual harassment against UNAIDS’ deputy executive director. This was after Michel Sidibé, the then head of UNAIDS, told a staff meeting that people who complain about how the agency was handling sexual harassment “don’t have ethics.”

The UN’s highly patriarchal and misogynistic culture allows such abuse to continue unabated. In 2018, the UN conducted an internal survey that found that one-third of the UN employees surveyed had experienced sexual harassment. It revealed that the most vulnerable targets were women and transgender personnel aged between 25 and 44. Two out of three harassers were male and only one out of every three employees who were harassed took any action against the perpetrator. About one in ten women reported being touched inappropriately; a similar number said they had witnessed crude sexual gestures.

Another survey by the UN Staff Union found that sexual harassment was one among many abuses of authority that take place at the UN. Results of the survey showed that sexual harassment made up about 16 per cent of all forms of harassment. Forty-four per cent said that they had experienced abuse of authority; of these, 87 per cent said that the person who had abused his or her authority was a supervisor. Twenty per cent felt that they had experienced retaliation after reporting the misconduct.

The UN’s highly patriarchal and misogynistic culture allows such abuse to continue unabated.

Since then, the UN has established a new sexual harassment policy and a hot line for victims of sexual harassment. However, remedial actions spelled out in the policy appear to be mediation or counselling exercises rather than disciplinary ones. The emphasis is on psychosocial support and counselling (for the victims, of course) and “facilitated discussions” between the “offender” and the “affected individual”. Disciplinary measures include physical separation of the offender from the victim, reassignment, and temporary changes in reporting lines. Official internal investigations are permitted, but as I have tried to illustrate, most internal UN investigations into cases of sexual harassment and other kinds of wrongdoing inevitably conclude that the sexual harassment or wrongdoing “could not be substantiated.” This leaves victims vulnerable to retaliation.

Perhaps WHO can lead the way in showing the rest of the UN system how to tackle sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment by UN employees. WHO has already terminated the contracts of four of its employees who were accused of sexually exploiting women in the DRC. However, a true test of WHO and the UN’s commitment to end such abuses would be if they reinstated all those who were fired for reporting such cases. I for one am eagerly awaiting the independent monitoring group’s findings on whether or not WHO has taken tangible and impactful measures to protect people from being sexually abused and exploited by its employees and to safeguard the jobs of those who report such abuses.

Continue Reading

Op-Eds

The Retrospective Application of Constitutional Statutes: Notes From the High Court of Kenya

Katiba Institute adds to the growing comparative discussion around constitutional statutes and therefore ought to be keenly studied by students of comparative constitutional law.

Published

on

The Retrospective Application of Constitutional Statutes: Notes From the High Court of Kenya
Download PDFPrint Article

Previously, I have discussed the concept of constitutional statutes. Recall that a constitutional statute is a law that is “enacted in pursuance of the State’s positive obligation to fulfil a constitutional right.” While certain constitutional rights are self-enforcing (such as, for example, the right to free speech ipso facto prohibits the State from engaging in arbitrary censorship), others – by their very nature – require a statutory framework to be made effective. For example, the right to vote cannot be made effective without an infrastructure in place to conduct free and fair elections, including the existence of an independent, non-partisan Election Commission. Insofar as such a legislative framework is not in existence, the state is arguably in breach of its positive obligations to fulfil the right in question. Thus, to refine the definition further, a constitutional statute is a statute that “provides a statutory framework towards implementing a fundamental right, thereby fulfilling the state’s positive obligation to do so.”

What follows from the finding that a particular law is a constitutional statute? On this blog, we have discussed constitutional statutes in the context of amendments to the Right to Information Act, which have sought to undermine the independence of the Information Commissioners. We have argued that, insofar as constitutional statutes stand between the individual and the State, mediating the effective enforcement of rights, legislative amendments that prevent them from fulfilling this function, are thereby unconstitutional. Furthermore, once a constitutional statute has been enacted, the principle of non-retrogression applies – that is, the legislature cannot simply repeal the law and go back to a position where the right in question was unprotected. Another example discussed on this blog is the recent judgment of the Kenyan Court of Appeal in David Ndii, where it was held that the implementation of the Popular Initiative to amend the Kenyan Constitution required a legislative scheme, as also its discussion of the previous judgment in Katiba Institute, where an attempt to reduce the quorum for resolutions of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission was held to be unconstitutional.

The judgment of the High Court of Kenya of 14 October 2021 – also titled Katiba Institute – provides an additional, fascinating implication that flows from the finding that a law is a constitutional statute. Katiba Institute arose out of the efforts of the Government of Kenya to implement a national biometric identification system called NIIMS, and the judgment of the High Court with respect to a challenge to the constitutionality of NIIMS (Nubian Rights Forum), which we discussed on this blog back in 2019. Recall that in Nubian Rights Forum, after a detailed analysis, the High Court struck down a part of NIIMS, and allowed the government to go ahead with the rest of the programme subject to the implementation of an effective data protection law. Therefore, as I had noted in that post:

The High Court’s decision – at least in part – is a conditional one, where the (legal) future of the NIIMS is expressly made dependant on what action the government will take. Thus, there remain a significant number of issues that remain open for (inevitable) litigation, even after the High Court’s judgment.

Notably, Kenya had enacted a data protection law in between the hearings and the judgment, but the High Court – in its verdict – was insistent that until the point of effective implementation, the continued rollout of NIIMS could not go on. And this was at the heart of the challenge in Katiba Institute: the applicant argued that NIIMS had been rolled out, in particular, without complying with Section 31 of the Kenyan Data Protection Act, which required a Data Impact Assessment as a pre-requisite to any data collection enterprise. In response, the state argued that the data collection in question had already been completed before the passage of the Data Protection Act, and that therefore – in accordance with the general principle that statutes are not meant to apply retrospectively – Section 31 was inapplicable to this case.

Engaging in impeccable constitutional statute analysis, Justice Jairus Ngaah noted that the Data Protection Act was “enacted against the backdrop of Article 31 of the Constitution.” Article 31 of the Constitution of Kenya 2010 guarantees the right to privacy. As the learned Justice noted, in its very preamble, the DPA stated that its purpose was to “give effect to Articles 31(c) and (d) of the Constitution.” Justice Ngaah then rightly observed, “The need to protect the constitutional right to privacy did not arise with the enactment of the Data Protection Act; the right accrued from the moment the Constitution was promulgated.”

The judgment of the High Court of Kenya provides an additional, fascinating implication that flows from the finding that a law is a constitutional statute.

It therefore followed that, on the balance, an interpretation that gave the DPA retrospective effect was to be preferred over one that did not. A contrary interpretation would mean that the state was entitled to collect data and infringe the right to privacy even in the absence of a legislative scheme. Or, in other words, having failed to implement its positive obligation to enact a constitutional statute to give effect to the right to privacy, the state could then take advantage of its own failure by nonetheless engaging in data collection enterprises anyway. This, naturally, could not be countenanced. And in any event, given that Article 31 had always existed, it followed that:

. . . there was always the duty on the part of the State to ensure that the Bill of Rights . . . is respected and protected. Section 31 of the Act does not impose any more obligation or duty on the state than that which the state, or the respondents . . . have hitherto had to bear.

On this basis, Justice Ngaah therefore held that NIIMS had been rolled out in breach of Section 31, and therefore, first, quashed the rollout itself, and secondly, issued a mandamus restraining the State from rolling it out again without first complying with Section 31.*

The judgment in Katiba Institute does not, of course, answer the number of questions that still remained to be resolved after the Nubian Rights Forum judgment, including some problematic aspects of the DPA itself. Those questions were not, however, before the court in this instance; on the other hand, the court’s finding that constitutional statutes apply retrospectively – and the reasons for that finding – make it a landmark judgment. Katiba Institute adds to the growing comparative discussion around constitutional statutes, Fourth Branch bodies, and “Guarantor Institutions”, and therefore ought to be keenly studied by students of comparative constitutional law.

* One cannot, of course, help comparing this with the judgment of the Indian Supreme Court in the Aadhaar case, where despite the fact that Aadhaar data was collected for more than five years without any law whatsoever, it was retrospectively validated by the Supreme Court.

Continue Reading

Trending