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To foster peace, diplomacy must promote justice

Thursday, January 3, 2008 (Washington, DC) – In light of the serious human rights violations and challenges to stable governance Kenya has experienced in the past week, Africa Action calls for an immediate and comprehensive recount of presidential ballots supervised by international election monitors, and an end to the media broadcast ban. The clumsy series of contradictory remarks on the election made so far by U.S. officials have not been helpful in resolving the crisis and have revealed underlying U.S. interests. The U.S. must provide new coherent leadership to drive international pressure on rival candidates Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga to adhere to the democratic process peacefully and put a stop to the violence. The international community must base its response to the situation on the voices of the Kenyan people and concentrate on addressing not only the immediate political crisis but also deeper issues of social, political and economic justice. U.S.-Kenya policy should be people-centered and truly committed to robust democratic processes rather than defined by a narrow agenda of the “war on terror” and international business interests.

The ugly scenes of violence and chaos that have emerged following Kenya’s disputed presidential polls are symptoms of the greater issues of poverty and socioeconomic inequality. Western observers have held up Kenya as an economic dynamo for its high growth rates and macroeconomic stability without considering who benefits from this development. Despite vigorous growth rates of between five and seven percent over the past three years, Kenya is a country marked by disparity. With a per capita income of just $540 and a current ranking of 145 out of 177 in the United Nations’ Human Development Index, poverty is widespread. Some strides towards economic justice have been made in recent years. Notably, as president, Kibaki succeeded in eliminating primary school fees. However, the volatility around this election is testament to the fact that many Kenyans are still frustrated by poverty and a small elite holds the majority of their country’s vaunted wealth.

Kenya’s 2002 elections generated a powerful sense of optimism among the population that reflected a deep popular commitment to democratic ideals and a new future free of corruption. It is disappointing that these hopes have not materialized. This challenge should galvanize the U.S. and the international community to support this young democracy as it struggles to achieve its vision of a truly representative and responsive government. The African Union is playing a critical role as a rapid responder to help mediate the political crisis. However, U.S. leadership and sustained diplomatic pressure from the entire international community is essential to protecting human rights in Kenya and to a successful mediation between parties that results in a transparent legal solution to the dispute.

Much has been made of the ethnic dimensions of the conflict, but the bottom line is that power hungry politicians can manipulate ethnic differences to promote their own interests with dangerous consequences in the absence of social and economic justice. African nations, like countries worldwide, rely on robust democratic processes to mitigate such conflict. This involves transparent electoral machinery but also involves promoting governance and economic policies that serve all citizens and do not marginalize any groups. Both parties in the conflict have used the phrase genocide to characterize their rivals’ behavior. Africa Action urges leaders on all sides to avoide using inflammatory language that may incite further violence. At the same time, the international community must be vigilant for signs of widespread ethnic cleansing or even emerging genocide and be prepared to intervene if necessary to prevent such crimes against humanity from taking place.

The consequences of an international failure to support Kenya’s democracy during this crisis would be grim, particularly in terms of regional stability. For years, Kenya has been an anchor of stability in a region challenged by conflict. Kenya has hosted peace talks – such as those that led to Sudan’s 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) – and absorbed refugees from neighboring war-torn nations. While a step backwards for this fledgling democracy would hardly reflect on the political fortunes of the whole continent, it would add to the challenges faced by the already tenuous Horn and East Africa. Therefore, the U.S. must lead the international community in a vigorous diplomatic response to defuse current tensions. The first steps to push for are a fully transparent recount of all votes and the lifting of all restrictions on independent media.