Kenya started off as a liberal democratic state on attaining independence in 1963. However, efforts to entrench this tradition were crashed in the mid 1960s through emasculation of multi-party politics. Kenya thus operated as a de facto one-party state with the Kenya African National Union (KANU) as the only political party. In 1982, it was made a de jure one party state until democratic forces reversed the situation in 1992. During this time, parliament was a rubber stamp of the executive, sycophancy was institutionalised, the judiciary was at the beck and call of the executive, radical intellectuals were incarcerated and exiled and the language of liberation was anathema.
It is against this background that in 1991 five Kenyans living in exile in the United States of America (USA) and Canada formed KHRC and chose the human rights language because it was easy for the middle class and donors to accept. Because of the overwhelming oppression prevalent in the country, and limited capacity, they decided to focus first on civil and political rights although they did not believe in the artificial dichotomisation of human rights. KHRC was registered in Washington DC in 1991 after which one of the founders was sent to Kenya where he was housed at Kuria, Ringera and Murungi Advocates. Later, KHRC was hosted by Kituo cha Sheria before relocating to South B and finally to its current address at Valley Arcade, Gitanga Road. The first grant was given by the Ford Foundation.
In 1992-1997, we focused on monitoring, documenting and publicizing human rights violations. In this phase, we established ourselves as a vibrant advocate for civil and political rights in Kenya, through direct action protests and support to victims and survivors of human rights violations. We also distinguished ourselves by linking human rights struggles with the need for reforms in political leadership and institutions.
From 1998 to 2003, we expanded our advocacy strategy to include social and economic rights. We made a radical shift in approach that led us to begin developing capabilities of those affected by human rights problems to advocate for their rights. To do this, we invested in community based Human Rights Education (HRE) and shifted our advocacy approach from ‘reactive, ad-hoc, one-off’ activism to more nuanced processes, with more strategic design, participation of those affected by specific human rights violations and targeted reforms at policy and legislative levels.
In order to have a more systematic way of working, we developed our first Strategic Plan for the period 1999-2003. The thrust of this plan was to develop competencies at community level for citizens to identify and deal with human rights violations, without depending on our previous interventionist orientation. We defined our role in this period as a facilitator of community struggles. Capacity building in HRE, monitoring and documentation of human rights violations and human rights advocacy were the main tools to realise the goal.
Lessons learnt in this phase led to our decision to make additional investment in community-based programming. Reflections on the previous plan strongly concluded that there was promise for the realisation of a Kenya without human rights violations if we put more effort and emphasis in stimulating community capacity to institute change from below. We recognised that change could not be brought about by detached advocates of human rights but by the needy people themselves. We thus needed a new approach based on people’s agency and a relationship of solidarity and equality to transform structures of domination and disempowerment. This would require linkage with several actors. Thus we developed Vision 2012 to guide programming from 2002 to 2012 based on our theory of change.
In the 2003-2007 Strategic Plan, we focused on strategies and actions aimed at enhancing community-driven human rights advocacy, through building of the capacities of citizens to deal with their immediate human rights concerns as well as engage in strategic actions to transform structures responsible for human rights violations. Human rights-centred governance was the overriding theme of this strategic plan, under the banner of rooting human rights in communities. During this phase, we took on “neo-rights” programming focusing on rights related to trade, business, investment, natural resources, labour and sexual and reproductive health.
In 2008-2012, we continued to consolidate our experiences and successes to expand the impact of our work and play an active role in procuring citizen-led reforms towards a more just, democratic and human rights-respecting Kenyan society. 2010 was a significant year when we went through an internal reflection that led to prioritisation of economic, social and cultural rights and a shift in our approach from geographic to thematic work. With the Constitution of Kenya 2010 in place, our political project required reorientation in terms of knowledge, attitudes, perspectives and practices. We have grappled with: locating our work in communities without being touristic and domineering; remaining creative instead of being consumed in doing conventional NGO industry work; and balancing professionalism and activism.
In summary, KHRC has entered the public consciousness and legitimised the human rights discourse in Kenya. It rolled back despotism, pioneered economic and social rights in the country and produced individuals that have moved on to champion human rights in other arenas. For instance, a majority of the first commissioners at the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR) were from KHRC. The Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC) established in the wake of the post-election violence of 2008 was a brain child of KHRC. The current Chief Justice, Dr. Willy Mutunga, is a founder and former director of KHRC. And the current UN Special Rapporteur on Xenophobia, Dr. Mutuma Ruteere, is a product of KHRC.
This strategic plan (2013-2018) is the first after Vision 2012. It coincides with KHRC’s 20th anniversary and launches our work at regional and global levels.
 Prof. Makau Mutua, Maina Kiai, Dr. Wily Mutunga, Kiraitu Murungi and Peter Kareithi. See Willy Mutunga, Constitution Making from the Middle, pp. 41