Integrity of Kenya’s Truth Commission Report must be restored

Allegations have been made that the president’s office has interfered with a report on human rights violations in Kenya.

Uhuru Kenyatta
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta has nothing to lose by publishing the unaltered TJRC report, writes Seils [AP]

Kenya’s Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC) presented its report to the president of Kenya on May 21. It catalogues a lamentable history of serious human rights violations of Kenya’s people, from patterns of abuse during British colonial rule to those of each government since independence.

The TJRC was established as a response to the post-election violence of 2007-08, when political and ethnic strife caused widespread human rights violations, horrendous suffering by thousands, and deep international concern. With the support of the international community, both the Kenyan government and civil society sought to put in place measures of justice and reconciliation, and among them, an instrument to “address the past in order to prepare for the future”. In the TJRC Act, the legislators expressed eloquently their hope “to give the people of Kenya a fresh start, where justice is accorded to the victims”.

The report charts the execrable record of the police and armed forces as the principal instruments of serial and egregious violations; it establishes the role of presidents from Jomo Kenyatta onwards in leading governments that directed or were accomplices in those violations; it highlights classes of victims and marginalised groups who suffered the brunt of those abuses and the perennial causes of conflict in land and ethnic tensions. It makes a number of serious recommendations about access to justice, reform of institutions, investigations and prosecutions, reparations and exclusion from public office of a number of people. In brief, it looks like a report that could, under certain circumstances, offer the chance for serious reflection and a new beginning for Kenya.

The government of Kenya has a golden opportunity to make of virtue of this unseemly and grievous situation.

But there is a serious problem. There are credible allegations of political interference from the president’s office and subsequent alterations made to the report without the consent of a number of the commissioners. There are additional problems, but this is by far the most grave. If true, these acts represent outrageous and shocking conduct.

Out of almost 2,000 pages of text, it appears that five paragraphs have been the subject of alterations. They focus on issues concerning land tenure – in particular, allegations about the conduct of former President Jomo Kenyatta, the father of current Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta. The original, unedited versions have been widely circulated in the last few days. The alterations have, therefore, proved pointless as the cat is well and truly out of the bag.

The problem lies both in the alleged interference of the president’s office and the national commissioners’ decision to succumb to it. Not only would such conduct be unlawful on both parts, but those involved would have also grievously damaged the prospects of serious consideration of the report, and fundamentally broken faith with the Kenyan people, whom they had sworn a solemn oath to serve. The TJRC should have been the shining light that led the way in restoring trust and confidence in office holders, institutions and government. Instead its report is mired in pointless controversy.

It would, however, be a fundamental error to suggest that these very serious problems deny the vast majority of the report any value. Rather, the question is: Who benefits if this report is not seriously analysed and if its recommendations are ignored? Last on the list of people who benefit are the Kenyan people.

The situation is grave, but it is not without remedy. The original report with unaltered text should have been submitted to the President on May 3. This is the report the TJRC should publish immediately, and have tabled in parliament within three weeks, according to the TJRC’s establishing law [PDF]. The government of Kenya has a golden opportunity to make of virtue of this unseemly and grievous situation.

Mr Kenyatta is presented in the first months of his presidency with a genuinely defining moment: Does he stand for strong institutions, free from interference, where government is a service to the nation, not a licence for abuse? Or does he stand for business as usual, the tragic business of the abuse of power that is rather well documented in the report? We will know the answer within days. He has the power to restore not only the integrity of the report, but indeed the hope of change in the hearts of all Kenyans.

By publishing and tabling the report of May 3, Mr Kenyatta has nothing to lose and a great deal to win, not least the admiration of his people who long for a state with credible institutions that protect their most basic rights.

Paul Seils is Vice President of the International Centre for Transitional Justice.