Kenya’s truth commission must act now to salvage credibility

Kenya’s truth commission could have made a valuable contribution to its future by honouring victims of past violence.

Only perseverant efforts and rigorous analysis will ensure that future truth commissions are "adequately prepared to respond to the demands of victims of atrocity and their right to the truth" [EPA]

The findings of Kenya’s Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC) were due to be released in August of this year, providing citizens with a comprehensive report that establishes the facts, causes and alleged perpetrators of serious crimes in Kenya since its independence, almost 50 years ago. To date, Kenyans are still waiting to learn the truth. 

The electoral violence of 2007 was the impetus for Kenya’s embarking on a journey of accountability that included the establishment of the TJRC and investigations by the International Criminal Court. International peacemakers and human rights groups, including the International Center for Transitional Justice, supported efforts by local stakeholders to explore the root causes of the violence and investigate the crimes that had taken place. It was recognised that long-term reconciliation would require a holistic approach to justice, not one contradictory to the rights of victims. 

Truth commissions, in particular, work more effectively when they complement the work of criminal justice, reparations programmes and institutional reform. By focusing on the voices and experiences of victims, they can help to heal nations, marginalise violent alternatives and catalyse institutional transformation. International support for Kenya’s TJRC was significant from the early stages of consultations with civil society and legislative debate. Once established, the TJRC received technical assistance that distilled the lessons learned from over 40 similar truth commissions all over the world. 

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In fulfilling its promise, the TJRC could have made a valuable contribution to Kenya’s future by honouring the victims of past violence, ensuring that their voice was not lost in the noise of day-to-day politics, and proposing concrete policies for addressing past abuses. Regrettably, that opportunity appears to have been missed. 

The commission was beset from the start by crippling internal challenges that went beyond the enormous scope of its mandate; chief among these were allegations of human rights violations made against its chairperson. As a result, the commission’s tenure was marked by an uneasy relationship with civil society and resource-consuming litigation.

Parliament is now debating whether to grant the TJRC a nine-month extension to release its report, but there is no clarity on how the commission would use this additional time or if Parliament is inclined to grant it. Further, the TJRC’s failure to meet its August deadline has pushed the release of its final report into an election year, raising risks of politicisation and exacerbating civil society’s mistrust of the TJRC. 

If the commission is to dispel these fears and retain the credibility crucial to fulfilling its mission, it should finish its work and release its findings with the shortest possible delay, even if only in the form of an abridged report. The TJRC should also hand over its archives to Kenya’s government and civil society without delay, ensuring their protection and appropriate use in future truth-seeking initiatives. 

The unfortunate situation of the TJRC should be a clarion call for the international community to fine-tune its knowledge and co-operation capacity around truth commissions. After the strong impact in countries like Chile and South Africa, truth commissions have become an integral tool in post-conflict and post-authoritarian reconstruction. 

However, Kenya’s experience should make us reassess our assumptions. We must accept that commissions can be very fragile institutions, undergoing risks and challenges from their inception to the culmination of their work. Only perseverant efforts and rigorous analysis will ensure that future truth commissions are adequately prepared to respond to the demands of victims of atrocity and their right to the truth. 

The TJRC was established with a key role to play in addressing abuses of the past in Kenya. It was intended to provide victims, as well as Kenyan society at large, with the facts regarding the recent violence and its causes and, thus, a basis for moving forward. This opportunity is now in danger of being squandered. It is high time that the TJRC deliver its report, even in a less than ideal formulation. Parliament has a responsibility to the country to ensure that this happens. The victims deserve no less. 

David Tolbert is the president of the International Center for Transitional Justice.