Civil society should nurture voice in the voiceless

Seemingly out of the blue, someone decided to try revive the specter of the International Criminal Court (ICC), after Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda reiterated—as she has consistently done in her formal reports to the ICC and the United Nations—that there are still some outstanding issues with regards to witness tampering.

There is nothing new in what Ms Bensouda reported but her reports were seized by some to try to revisit the idea of a witch-hunt and recreate victimhood status for a suspect, something that was devastatingly effective in 2012/2013. Then, Messrs Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto—with the help of British public relations companies—remarkably shifted the narrative of mass killings, rape and forced displacement to one that presented them as victims, with little thought of the real victims of that gruesome violence.

The real victims and survivors—the families of the more than 1,300 killed, the women and men who were sexually brutalised, the thousands of people injured and maimed, and the hundreds of thousands who were evicted from their farms and houses—were left in the lurch, depending on the mercy and benevolence of civil society and relatives. We have failed them as a country, and until we deal with the issues from that episode, and find ways of ensuring accountability for the violence in Eldoret, Kisumu, Nakuru, Naivasha and Nairobi, this scar will always haunt us.  

And it will remain an issue that some will seek to weaponise for politics, as we see in the current efforts, distorting politics and reality, and constantly changing the narrative. Not even ten Building Bridges initiatives will lead to closure if we can’t come up with credible accountability mechanisms that go to the bottom of that sad episode of our history.

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Remember the cases ended not because of innocence, but because witnesses—understandably—opted out, or were killed to ensure their silence. These issues were underlined when I saw an excellent documentary entitled “The unsilenced voicesof Beslan” about the Beslan school siege in North Ossetia in Russia of September 2014. Basically, armed terrorists seized control of a school and took about 1,000 people hostage for three days, demanding the independence of Chechnya and the withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya, seeking secession from Russia.  

Big guns

Three days later, Russian troops stormed the school, using tanks, grenades and big guns, and left 334 people—including 186 children—dead, excluding the terrorists killed.

The documentary is about a group of mothers of some of the children who were killed and many of whom were also among the hostages held for three days. It follows them as they seek answers, accountability and justice from the Russian state, whose rescue attempt is a lesson on how not to carry out rescue missions, given that they did little reconnaissance and did not discriminate between innocent hostage and terrorist. While not negotiating with terrorists is a common tactic among many security forces, there is also a duty of care that is expected from security forces to ensure there are minimal deaths of innocent people especially when there are children involved.

After the attack on the school and the end of the siege, and after burying their dead and licking their wounds, the survivors came together to seek answers and obtain some accountability from the Russian state. Instead of being treated humanely, all they have gotten is stonewalling, lies and silence. Worse the commanders at the scene were promoted after a perfunctory investigation. Bizarrely, the day after the botched rescue attempt, the school was bulldozed to the ground destroying the evidence that showed what the Russian security forces had done.

But the survivors have not relented. They have pushed the government as much as possible, sent petitions, forced audience with President Putin and other officials and finally took the matter to court, even as they have faced criminal charges and harassment from authorities. And after Russian courts whitewashed their complaints, they appealed to the European Court of Human Rights, which upheld their stand and indicted Russia for the use of excessive force, and not protecting the right to life of victims.

There are some important lessons for us in Kenya from this, especially given how often our regime has killed, disappeared and tortured innocent people in the wars on crime, gangs and terrorism, and allowed us to be targets of terrorist attacks. Five years since the Westgate attacks, the promised Commission of Inquiry has never been set up, and almost all of us, including the victims and survivors have gone silent.

For us in civil society, our lesson must be that it is time for us to allow and nurture voice in the voiceless, rather than we keep being that voice. For nothing is as powerful as when victims and survivors push and pursue the justice and accountability that they need and require.

- The writer is former KNCHR chairman. [email protected]

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