Watchdogs warn police will export abuse to Haiti

Police clash with a man during a protest by supporters of Kenya’s opposition leader Raila Odinga over the high cost of living and alleged stolen presidential vote, in Nairobi, on March 20.

Nairobi (AP):

As the US government was considering Kenya to lead a multinational force in Haiti, it was also openly warning Kenyan police officers against violent abuses. Now 1,000 of those officers might head to Haiti to take on gang warfare.

It’s a challenging turn for a police force long accused by rights watchdogs of killings and torture, including gunning down civilians during Kenya’s COVID-19 curfew. One local group confirmed that officers fatally shot more than 30 people in July, all of them in Kenya’s poorest neighbourhoods, during opposition-called protests over the rising cost of living.

“We are saddened by the loss of life and concerned by high levels of violence, including the use of live rounds” during those protests, the U.S. said in a joint statement with 11 other nations in mid-July.

Now the US, as this month’s president of the UN Security Council, is preparing to put forward a resolution to authorise a mission in Haiti led by Kenyan police, who have relatively little overseas experience in such large numbers and don’t speak French, which is used in Haiti.

“This is not a traditional peacekeeping force,” the US ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, said.

For more than nine months, the UN had appealed unsuccessfully for a country to lead an effort to restore order to the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.

“Kenya stands with persons of African descent across the world,” Alfred Mutua said. A ministry spokesman didn’t respond to questions about the force or what Kenya would receive in return.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken praised Kenya for simply considering serving, a sign of the difficulty in mustering international forces for Haiti, where deadly gang violence has exploded since the 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse.

Some organisations that have long tracked alleged police misconduct in Kenya are worried.

“We had some consultations with Kenyan (civil society organisations) last week and there was general consensus that Kenya should not be seen to be exporting its abusive police to other parts of the world,” Otsieno Namwaya, Kenya researcher with Human Rights Watch, told The Associated Press.

Kenya’s security forces have a years-long presence in neighbouring Somalia to counter Islamic extremists – a deadly threat that some Kenyans say should keep the police at home – and troops have been in restive eastern Congo since last year. Past UN peacekeeping deployments include Sierra Leone.

“I have no knowledge of any complaints raised by the UN during those deployments, hence no concern on my end,” the executive director of the watchdog Independent Medico-Legal Unit, Peter Kiama, told the AP. “Remember, the major challenges regarding policing practices in Kenya include political interference with police command and independence, inadequate political will to reform the institution, culture of internal impunity and criminality, and inadequate internal and external accountability.”

With the Haiti deployment, Kenyan police would likely be in charge instead of answering to a UN force commander as in traditional peacekeeping missions.

Last week, Kenya’s National Assembly saw a shouted debate, along with demands for a moment of silence, over police actions during the recent protests.

“The kind of brutality that has been meted out on innocent and unarmed civilians in the last couple of months has been unprecedented,” minority leader Opiyo Wandayi said. “Those youth that you are killing require jobs, not bullets.”

Kenya’s leading opposition party has threatened to gather evidence to submit to the International Criminal Court.

In response, Interior Minister Kithure Kindiki said that police have remained “neutral, impartial and professional”. The ministry referred questions about alleged abuses to the police, who haven’t responded.

Ruto, elected president a year ago, at first praised police for their conduct during the protests but later warned officers against extrajudicial killings as a public outcry grew.

Problems with Kenya’s police force have long been acknowledged, even by officials.

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