Kenya Elections 2017: Protecting the protectors

Demonstrators from the Civil society group hold placards as they protest over the death of Chris Msando, a senior Kenyan election official who was found murdered in Nairobi, Kenya, August 1, 2017. © Baz Ratner
Kenyans head to the polls on 8 August to elect a new president. While atrocities have not been seen on the scale of the 2007-8 post-election violence that brought several high-level politicians before the International Criminal Court, abuses aimed at subverting the election process have been carried out across the country. Human rights defenders, justice advocates, journalists, bloggers and now an election official have found themselves targeted. Whatever the outcome next week, Kenya's next president must do more to protect the protectors and all those working to ensure a free, fair election and justice for human rights abuses.

As the 2017 presidential election campaigns kicked off between incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta and opposition leader Raila Odinga in April, political violence that has dogged elections since the end of Kenya's one-party state system in 1991 emerged once again.

The party primaries were violent, and rights abuses were rampant.

In the past week alone, on 31 July, Chris Msando, the head of information, communication and technology of the electoral commission, was found dead. The Chairperson of the Commission, Wafula Chebukati, expressed no doubts that Msando “was tortured and murdered.”

"It is important that security agencies expedite investigations as a matter of utmost urgency," John Githongo, a prominent anti-corruption campaigner, said during a march by about 25 protesters. "The timing of his torture and murder serves to undermine Kenya's election management body," he added, as the group sang and held up banners denouncing the killing.

On 29 July, an armed man wounded a police guard and broke into the house of Kenya’s Deputy President William Ruto.

Public confidence in many of the institutions designed to alleviate political tensions has continued to decline.

Human rights defenders (HRDs), including those working on international justice, have been strongly campaigning to protect the integrity of the Kenyan presidential election and prevent the recurrence of violence. 

 

Systematic targeting of human rights defenders?

Kenya’s official rights body has reported that Kenyan security forces carried out 25 extrajudicial killings between 2013 and 2015.

Amnesty International meanwhile sites more than 300 cases of individuals who have gone missing while in the hands of security agencies in 2009. Many were later found dead.

According to the International Federation for Human Rights Report on Kenya’s 2017 Elections, a number of vulnerable and marginalized groups have been targeted by Kenyatta since he took office in 2013.

Methods reported have included incitement of police violence and other human rights violations. Targeted groups have included local marginalized communities, such as women human rights defenders; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and intersex rights defenders; land and environmental rights activists; and bloggers and journalists.

Attempts by HRDs to hold Kenyan public officials accountable for human rights violations have resulted in harassment, silencing and stigmatization by government and law enforcement officials, often through excessively long trials, trumped-up charges, and indefinite detentions.

Retaliation against international justice advocates has also turned deadly.

In June 2016, Willie Kimani, Kenyan representative of International Justice Mission, Right Promotion Protection, and the Law Society of Kenya, was tortured and murdered by police forces. His death triggered nationwide protests against extrajudicial killings and police violence – both of which can constitute Rome Statute crimes.

 

HRDs and journalists: Paving a shared path to peace and justice

HRDs and key actors who dedicate their lives to exposing human rights abuses have paved the way for a free and independent media. However, they are consistently targeted for demanding that the government uphold constitutional and international human rights obligations to protect freedom of expression and media freedoms.

Human Rights Watch and Article 19 Eastern Africa, an independent non-profit organization that promotes the basic human rights of freedom of expression and access to information, partnered to report on abuses on the ground against journalists and other actors targeted during the run-up to the 2017 general election.

The report found that HRDs became targets starting in 2013 when Kenyatta took office, documenting 17 incidents where 23 journalists and bloggers were physically assaulted between 2013 and 2017 by individuals believed to be aligned with government officials; and 16 incidents of direct death threats against journalists and bloggers across the country between 2013 and 2017.

The Kenyan Human Rights Commission (KHRC) in conjunction with Kura Yangu, Sauti Yangu (KYSY), a citizen movement organized by a number of civil society organizations, issued their report titled “The Road to Credible 2017 Elections,” in June. According to the report, “credible elections are the best guarantor of peace,” and a loss of credibility can only be restored by functioning in an open and transparent manner.

The KHRC report calls on the government to not only hold those responsible for violence accountable, regardless of title or rank, in order to end cycles of impunity, but also to allow for the creation of safe spaces for dialogue and debate moving forward.

Targeted attacks on HRDs and other members of civil society working towards a fair electoral system and credible elections directly affect Kenya’s ability to promise its citizens peace that can last beyond presidential terms.

The existence of an active and unhindered civil society is vital to ensure a fair electoral process and a truly peaceful political process.

As 8 August approaches, HRDs, including Coalition members, will continue to fight for legitimate and credible elections and justice for atrocities as a necessary step towards a peaceful future in the country.

 

August 8 election: What to expect

Reuters this week reported that the presidential race is very close: Opposition leader Raila Odinga is favoured by 49 percent of voters compared with President Uhuru Kenyatta's 48 percent, according to a poll of 5,000 Kenyans across 47 counties released on Tuesday by Infotrak Research and Consulting.

Murithi Mutiga of the International Crisis Group writes that "in 2007, the widespread violence came as a shock to virtually all observers. This time, the country is better prepared; there have been major efforts by security forces, civil society and the business community to try to forestall a crisis

"Diplomats and observer missions have been quietly reaching out to the two main candidates, urging them to sign a peace pact committing to renounce violence, adhere to the electoral code of conduct, accept the will of the people as expressed in a fair and credible poll and to challenge results that do not favour them through the court system."

 

Background: The ICC and ghosts of elections past

Kenya has experienced violence around general elections since the reintroduction of a multiparty system in 1992. In 2007, amid allegations of electoral fraud committed by both parties, Kenya experienced its worst politically triggered ethnic violence since its independence in 1964.

At least 1,300 people died and more than 600,000 were displaced.  In the aftermath of the contested election, a coalition government was established with both candidates through a power-sharing agreement.  A Commission of Inquiry on Post- Election Violence (CIPEV), later known as the Waki Commission, was also created.  Around the same time, the International Criminal Court (ICC) began its own preliminary examination into the post-election violence.

In its report, the Waki Commission submitted recommendations to the government of Kenya, which included the establishment of a special tribunal comprised of both national and international judges tasked with investigating and prosecuting perpetrators of post-election violence – in line with the ICC Rome Statute’s complementarity principle.

The Waki report stated that if such a tribunal was not established within six months, information collected by the Commission would be passed along to the ICC.  In 2009, the ICC Prosecutor received documents and supporting materials from the Commission, including a sealed envelope with a list of suspects in the post-electoral violence.  Among those named was Uhuru Kenyatta, incumbent president since 2013 and a candidate in this year’s election.  Kenyatta was officially charged with five counts of crimes against humanity for his alleged role, but those charges were ultimately withdrawn due to insufficient evidence.

ICC Kenya investigation

 

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