Celebrating Odindo Opiata
The NGO Coalition for the OP-ICESCR has lost one of our most valued and respected advocates and a friend, Odindo Opiata. Opiata was the Director of Hakijamii, an organisation he started in 2004 with the aim of helping grassroots community groups advocate for their rights. Previously, he worked as the coordinator of Legal Services and Community Partnerships at Kituo Cha Sheria. He has been an active member of ESCR-Net and the OP-Coalition for many years.
Opiata was a true leader in social rights litigation and fought tirelessly for access to justice for the poor. He won a number of precedent setting cases, even in the years of a hostile judicial environment for human rights in Kenya, by developing new and innovative strategies to get access to hearings and remedies for those whose rights were violated. One of Opiata’s most inspiring litigation experiences, however, was in relation to a hopeless case that he lost in court. I have often thought of it when I am in need of encouragement.
Opiata was representing a squatter community facing imminent eviction from their homes. Community members were desperate to challenge the eviction in any way they could. They asked Opiata for advice about launching a court action to challenge the eviction as a violation of their right to housing. He told them that, regretfully, given the state of the law and record of the court, the case was virtually hopeless. Still, the group insisted, they wanted to go to court to challenge the eviction and Opiata agreed. He argued the case eloquently, but knew it was to no avail, dreading the decision and the community’s disappointment.
On the day the judge’s decision was to be handed down, all the members of the community showed up at the court, filling it to overflowing. When the judge appeared and began to read the judgment, however, he could barely be heard. En masse, the group had begun to sing and dance in celebratory fashion. As Opiata had predicted, they had lost the case but the dancing and singing continued. Whatever the judge’s view of the merits of their legal claim, their celebration affirmed the success of a more fundamental claim to occupy an adjudicative space in which they were able to at least give voice to a challenge to what they were certain was a violation of human rights. Occupying judicial space was a victory in itself, a first step in having their rights recognized. The community continued to mobilize to assert their rights and the eviction was never carried out. In 2008 the OP-ICESCR for which Opiata had fought for many years was adopted. In 2010, as a result of the advocacy of Opiata and others, a new Constitution was adopted in Kenya which guarantees access to justice for social rights including “the right to accessible and adequate housing”.
Sadly, we have lost Opiata but I think he would want us to turn this loss into a victory as well, to dance and sing and celebrate the occupied spaces and the rights affirmed through his work that can only lead to greater victories in the future. It is expected that the Kenyan Parliament will soon adopt The Evictions and Resettlement Procedures Bill for which Opiata advocated. Kenya should also ratify the OP-ICESCR in recognition of Opiata’s contributions to access to justice in that country and around the world. It would be a great way to honour and celebrate one of the true heros of our international movement.
By Bruce Porter, Director of Social Rights Advocacy Centre. He is member of the Steering Committee of the NGO Coalition for the OP-ICESCR and the Strategic Litigation Working Group at the ESCR-Net