A predisposed view: State violence, human rights organisations and the invisibility of the poor in Nairobi

Catrine Christiansen, Steffen Bo Jensen, Toby Kelly

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articleResearchpeer-review


The article examines the challenges faced by human rights organisations in documenting cases of torture, focusing on the particular example of Kenya. The analysis is situated in the context of both widespread human rights violations and a vibrant human rights community in Kenya. There is considerable evidence that the urban poor are particularly vulnerable to torture and ill-treatment. However, the article suggests that human rights organisations often fail systematically to document the experiences of survivors living in conditions of poverty. The empirical material for this article was produced during three stages of data collection between May 2014 and September 2016, including a household survey examining exposure to torture and ill-treatment in an informal settlement and in-depth interviews with human rights practitioners, survivors and members of the community. The authors focus on the particular case of torture and ill-treatment rather than wider forms of state violence, such as extrajudicial killings, although the two often overlap. The aim is not to provide a legal analysis of mechanisms around the prevention of torture and ill-treatment. Rather, it is to provide a sociological and anthropological analysis of the obstacles to the effective human rights documentation of violations experienced by the urban poor. The article argues that three structural predispositions create considerable challenges in the documentation of torture and ill-treatment. These are limits to socio-spatial and institutional reach; the privileging of legal accountability; and a focus on the 'good victim'. In the conclusion the article sets out some implications of the research findings, including the strengthening of alliances with non-human rights groups, the privileging of protection over legal accountability, and the importance of a 'victim-centred' approach.
Original languageEnglish
JournalAfrican Human Rights Law Journal
Issue number2
Pages (from-to)721-742
Number of pages22
Publication statusPublished - 2019


  • state violence
  • corruption
  • Policing

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