Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki signed into law a new constitution today during a ceremony partly overshadowed by the presence of Sudanese President Umar al- Bashir, wanted by the International Criminal Court for genocide.
Al-Bashir joined other East African leaders as well as tens of thousands of Kenyans at the signing ceremony that took place in a downtown park in the capital, Nairobi.
The Hague-based ICC in July charged al-Bashir with three counts of genocide against the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa ethnic groups in the western region of Darfur. The court had issued another warrant for him in March 2009 for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity. Kenya is a member of the ICC and is therefore obliged to arrest al-Bashir, New York-based Human Rights Watch said today in an e-mailed statement.
“Kenya will forever tarnish the celebration of its long- awaited constitution,” said Elise Keppler, a senior counsel at Human Rights Watch. “Even worse, hosting al-Bashir would throw into question Kenya’s commitment to cooperate with the ICC in its Kenyan investigation.”
Foreign Affairs Minister Moses Wetang’ula said that Kenya won’t arrest al-Bashir because he was invited by the government, according to the Daily Nation website.
ICC Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo said on May 12 that he plans to present cases against six Kenyans by the end of the year, after a probe into allegations of crimes against humanity during violence that followed disputed elections in December 2007. The ICC stepped in after Kenyan lawmakers failed several times to create a local tribunal to try suspects.
An estimated 1,500 people died in ethnic clashes after Kibaki claimed victory in a presidential election that his political rival, Raila Odinga, said was rigged.
Two months of violence ended after the leaders signed a power-sharing accord that named Odinga as prime minister and agreed on changes including a new constitution. Former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who mediated in the peace negotiations, was also in attendance at today’s ceremony. It followed an Aug. 4 referendum in which Kenyans voted in favor of the charter.
The constitution aims to distribute political power among the country’s 42 ethnic groups, achieve more equitable land distribution and put checks and balances on the president, aiming to avoid a repeat of the post-election violence.
“We have opened a clean new page on our books,” Odinga said at today’s ceremony. “On that page we begin writing the story of an equal and just society.” Kibaki called it the “most important day” in the country’s post-independence history. The new charter replaces one dating to when Kenya gained independence from Britain in 1963.
Al-Bashir embodies the spirit of impunity and “bad governance” that Kenyan leaders said they were trying to leave behind with the new constitution, Karuti Kanyinga, a political scientist in Kenya, said during an interview with the privately owned KTN television station today. “It’s a blot on this very important occasion. It’s sending the very wrong signal,” he said.
Kenya is among the 53 member states of the African Union, which last month called on the ICC to suspend arrest warrants against al-Bashir, while the continental body investigates the allegations of genocide.
As many as 300,000 people have died, mainly through illness and starvation, and more than 2.7 million have been displaced in Darfur since February 2003, according to the UN. Sudan says the death toll is about 10,000.
Allowing al-Bashir into the country may be a sign that Kenya’s political leaders are unwilling to cooperate with the ICC investigation into the unrest that followed the 2007 vote, John Ashworth, acting director of the Denis Hurley Peace Institute in Pretoria, South Africa, said today.
“Possibly Kenya doesn’t see any link between President Bashir’s own indictment and their own dealings with the ICC,” Ashworth said in an e-mailed response to questions. “Possibly this is connected with very mixed feelings within Kenya’s government and society as to whether their issues should be dealt with internally or by the ICC.”