As U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry prepares to discuss security cooperation, trade and human rights with Kenyan leaders, rights groups are urging the top American diplomat to use his visit to address alleged abuses by Kenyan forces in their anti-terror operations.
Kerry’s visit to Kenya comes on the heels of the devastating terrorist attack on Garissa University College in the northeast, which left 148 people dead, most of them students.
The al-Qaida linked militant group al-Shabab, an enemy to both Kenya and the United States, claimed responsibility.
Tom Mboya, a governance consultant in Nairobi, says security cooperation has to be a central issue during the secretary’s visit.
“Kenya has been victim to a number of attacks over the last few years, and actually since 2011 there have probably been more attacks than we’ve seen in any period before that," he said. "So that’s of extreme concern to the majority of Kenyans, and it’s also an area of cooperation between Kenya and the U.S.”
Counter-terrorism has been at the center of U.S.-Kenyan relations since the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi introduced the names al-Qaida and Osama Bin Laden to the western world.
With U.S. support, Kenya has also targeted al-Shabab militants in recent years — sending troops into Somalia and searching out terrorist cells at home.
But rights groups have expressed concern over alleged abuses committed by Kenyan security forces in these operations, including harassment of Somali populations in Kenya and raids on the offices of Muslim human rights groups.
Leslie Lefkow, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch, notes that as the U.S. funds and supports Kenya’s counter-terror operations, it must hold their forces accountable.
“Given that we’ve documented very credible allegations against units including the anti-terrorism police unit, the U.S. is obliged to respond to this and investigate and take measures.”
Human Rights Watch and other groups signed a joint letter to Secretary Kerry urging him to address rights issues directly to Kenya’s leadership.
“If we see these patterns continuing and the U.S. not putting these issues as firmly on the agenda as they need to be, then I think there will be really strong concerns that the counter-terrorism partnership is trumping these very serious human rights concerns,” said Lefkow.
Kenya-U.S. relations have had rocky moments in recent years, hitting a low point ahead of Kenya’s presidential election in 2013, when the front-runners and eventual winners, Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto, were facing crimes against humanity charges at the International Criminal Court. They were accused of orchestrating the inter-tribal violence that followed the election.
The ICC has since dropped charges against President Kenyatta, though the case against Ruto is ongoing.
Tom Mboya says while the collapse of the ICC case against Kenyatta has improved ties, friendly relations run deeper than the politics of the day.
“Kenya has not only had very warm relations with the U.S. on a diplomatic front, but also has in terms of the Kenyan people and the people of the United States, both of whom look at each other very favorably," he said. "You know, I went to university in the U.S., so I know this from experience.”
Kerry’s visit is also seen as a precursor to President Barack Obama’s planned trip to Kenya in July. Obama has traveled to Kenya, the birthplace of his father, in the past, but this will be his first visit as president.