Project Description

This research project, which started on 1 September 2014 for three years, will be the first to document and analyse the impact of cultural rights provisions in Kenya’s new constitution on Kenyan society and its heritage sector, producing analysis, policy recommendations and empirical data that will be of use locally and internationally. It is based at The Open University (UK) and funded by the ESRC.

Led by Principal Investigator Dr Lotte Hughes, the research team is made up of British and Kenyan scholars, from different disciplinary backgrounds including history, anthropology, human rights law and heritage studies. The project is affiliated to the University of Nairobi.

New rights

The constitution, approved in a public referendum in August 2010, enshrines rights to cultural heritage which Kenyans have never previously enjoyed. It is currently being implemented, and different groups are bringing or planning claims to cultural rights, which could have far-reaching implications for peace and social unification. The constitution will potentially democratise and decentralise heritage management by devolving powers to 47 new county governments. Our study will, as implementation proceeds, examine connections between the ways in which citizens exercise these particular rights, social cohesion and national peace prospects.

Civil society groups plan to use the constitution to assert rights and make a variety of claims; for example, for the return of ‘ancestral’ land, access to sacred sites, safeguards for intellectual property, and protection for endangered languages. Conversely, some groups such as Councils of Elders are unhappy with the constitution’s ban on harmful cultural practices, and want to see that reversed.


While positive in some respects, since culture can be a tool for development and peace building, there are dangers that claims to cultural rights could lead to the further concretisation of ‘tribe’ and essentialised ethnic identity, the promotion of sub-nationalist (‘tribal’) identities, a clash between human rights and cultural rights (especially where women’s and children’s rights are concerned), a retreat into deeper ethnic enclaves and the hardening of ethnicised territorial boundaries. Any of these may exacerbate social tensions and sabotage peace and unification efforts. Yet the aim of the constitution is the exact opposite: to unite the nation.

The research will examine and analyse these processes and the public debates and discourses around them, mapping the impact as constitutional provisions are both implemented and interpreted. It involves multi-sited fieldwork and archival work in the UK and Kenya.

Summary of project-Cultural Rights and Constitution