Pio Gama Pinto

What is Social Justice? By Kimani Waweru

Our friend and comrade Kimani Waweru from the Mau Mau Research Centre (MMRC) breaks down social justice for us here. He gave this presentation as part of the recent March training for human rights monitors from Mathare that we had at MSJC. You can read more of this important analysis on his blog


The notion of social justice is relatively new. The concept first surfaced in Western thought and political language in the wake of the industrial revolution and the parallel development of the socialist doctrine. It emerged as an expression of protest against what was perceived as the capitalist exploitation of labour and as a focal point for the development of measures to improve the human condition. It was born as a revolutionary slogan embodying the ideals of progress and fraternity. Following the revolutions that shook Europe in the mid-1800s, social justice became a rallying cry for progressive thinkers and political activists[1]. The capitalist system whose engine is expropriation of profits from exploited workers and oppressed women brought about inequality. The rise in inequality in the distribution of income among people has resulted in the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. This causes majority of people to be poor and this constitutes an injustice. The urge to get more profits also leads the capitalist government to cut down social spending thus contributing to discrimination, poor health, vulnerability, insecurity, and a lack of education among the majority poor.

The concept of social justice has also been adopted by religious groups for example catholic church in Latin America through the Peruvian  priest, Gestavo Gutierrez came up with liberation theology  which conveys the teachings of Jesus Christ in terms of a liberation from unjust economic, political, or social conditions. It is an interpretation of Christian faith through the poor’s suffering, their struggle and hope, and a critique of society and the Christianity through the eyes of the poor. The concept has also been adopted by other denominations

Failure by the Kenya Government to provide social services goes against the constitution as well as the  charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948. The Constitution of Kenya article 43 has stipulated that every person has the right to education, health care, social security etc. the Universal Declaration of Human Rights articles 22 and 26 also insists on the said rights, for example article 22 dwells on the right to social security; it states that all have the right to affordable housing, medicine, education, and child care, enough money to live on and medical help if he/she is sick or old. Article 26 states that education is a right and primary school should be free.

Government failure to offer social justice to the poor has led to youth especially those from poor neighbourhoods to engage in all manner of tactics to put food in their table. Few, due to frustration and desperation ,end up indulging in anti-social activities such as stealing and prostitution. The government on its side uses its dehumanised police to execute the said youth without adhering to the constitution of the country. The police actions has robbed many youths of their basic rights and therefore allowing them to be victims of injustice. The Government which is the main culprit, deceives people that it is addressing social justice by coming up with arbitrary policies which at the end fail to produce the desired results. For example In January 2013 the Kenyan Parliament enacted the Social Assistance Act. Under this law financial and social assistance was to be provided to poor orphans, vulnerable children, poor elderly persons, youth who are unemployed, disabled persons, widows and widowers, and people who have been disabled by acute chronic illness[2].

What is social justice?

It is the view that everyone deserves equal economic, political and social rights and opportunities.

Human Rights Approach to Social Justice

Human rights are basic rights which every human being is entitled to regardless of race, gender, nationality or ethnic origin they are intrinsic i.e. natural. They are not given by government, institution, spouse or parent. The role of government as far as human rights are concerned is to facilitate them. The international community has agreed to several key characteristics of human rights. These are:


  • Universality: human rights belong to everyone in the world
  • Equality: All rights are equally important
  • Inalienability: rights cannot be taken away from people, but can be limited through legally sanctioned processes
  • Indivisibility and interdependence: all the human rights are equally important for people to flourish and participate in society.


The human rights approach to social justice can be termed as turning to human rights to secure social, political, and economic objectives; to strengthen the capacity to use human rights to combat entrenched poverty, discrimination, and injustice.

Human Rights Defenders and Social Justice

A human rights defender (HRDs) can be said to be a person who promotes and protects the human rights of others and his own. In most cases HRDs apply social-justice principles by using knowledge of existing legal principles to protect the poor, oppressed, discriminated and powerless against the violators of social justice. The HRDs ensure that the poor and the disadvantaged are treated respectfully by duty-bearer stakeholders (state and its actors).  They also make sure that government bears the greatest responsibility or duty of facilitating access to social justice for all people irrespective of their class.

The Role of Human Rights Defenders in Protecting Social Justice

It is believed that peace is not possible where there are gross inequalities. People denied social justice will never cease to demand rights while those empowered by law to provide them will not yield until they are forced. This is because they benefit from status quo.  The duty bearers are always powerful and they normally do all manner of things to make sure that the status quo remain.  They normally use the state machineries such as police to execute their mission. On the other hand the HRDs who are part of the larger communities whose rights are denied strive to bring about the social justice and this puts them at risk. The duty bearers, as Indian writer and activist Arundhati Roy argues, have contributed in eroding the term social justice. Human rights violations are increasingly portrayed as unfortunate fallouts from an otherwise acceptable political and economic system.

[1] The International Forum for Social Development – Social Justice in an Open World: The Role of the United Nations United Nations Report 2006

[2] “Social justice a mirage for most Kenyans” by Kethi Kilonzo

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