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(Nairobi) – The Kenyan government’s limited progress on promised reforms and failure to address ongoing and past human rights abuses have contributed to tensions across Kenya prior to national elections on March 4, 2013, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The authorities should take urgent steps, including the arrest and fair trial of all those who directly incite or organize violence, to help ensure the elections are peaceful, free, and fair.

The 58-page report, “High Stakes: Political Violence and the 2013 Elections in Kenya,” presents the dangers of violence due to government failures to carry out needed reforms. Already in 2012 and early 2013, inter-communal clashes in parts of Kenya have claimed more than 477 lives and displaced about 118,000 people. Many of these incidents have been linked to pre-election maneuvering as local politicians mobilize support. The police and other authorities have repeatedly failed to prevent the violence or hold those responsible to account.

“Violence is not inevitable but the warning signs are too bright to ignore,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The government has failed to address the root causes of violence that have marred multi-party elections since 1992, and especially the atrocities of 2007-2008, so urgent steps are needed to protect Kenyans.”

After the last national elections in 2007, inter-ethnic clashes and police violence left about 1,300 people dead and 650,000 displaced. In early 2012 the public prosecutor stated it had opened approximately 5,000 files but to date only 14 people have been convicted for the serious post-election crimes five years ago.

The March elections are the first under Kenya’s new constitution, promulgated in 2010. To promote decentralization, Kenyans will vote for a president and a host of local positions in 47 newly created counties.

“The communities are preparing – they are arming themselves,” one activist in a local nongovernmental organization said. “All over they are saying: ‘This time we won’t be unprepared.’”

The report is based on interviews with more than 225 people around Kenya with a focus on Kenya’s Central, Coast, Eastern, North Eastern, Nyanza, and Rift Valley regions. The dynamics and risks in each of these regions differ, Human Rights Watch said.

In Coast, the government is facing a secessionist group opposed to the elections as well as a violent inter-ethnic conflict. In Nyanza and Central, powerful criminal groups and armed gangs are backing politicians. In North Eastern, government security forces have stoked tensions by using excessive force against local residents, especially after attacks by armed groups on the police and military.

The common theme across the country is the unwillingness of the government, the justice system, and other authorities to reform the police, tackle corruption, disband criminal groups, resettle displaced people, and hold accountable those responsible for violence. The near total impunity for the murders, rapes, and forced displacement after the 2007 elections has left the people who committed those crimes free to commit them again.

“The victims of violence feel that justice has passed them by, and the people who caused the violence feel protected from the law,” Bekele said. “This is a dangerous cocktail for the approaching elections.”

Without domestic prosecutions for the worst crimes in the 2007-2008 violence, the International Criminal Court (ICC) has stepped in. Four Kenyans are facing charges of crimes against humanity at the ICC, with trials due to start in April. Two of the four suspects, Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto, are running on a joint ticket for president and vice president, raising the stakes of the March elections.

Full cooperation with the ICC is important to ensure the court can move forward with trials, Human Rights Watch said.The ICC prosecutor has indicated that the Kenyan government has been slow to respond to her assistance requests.

The report points to the lack of police reform as a key concern. Although identified repeatedly as a problem, the police remain understaffed and ill-equipped, Human Rights Watch said. During violent clashes in 2012 and early 2013 the police frequently failed to intervene. When they did, they often used excessive and indiscriminate force. Kenyans across the country told Human Rights Watch that they view the police as ineffective and corrupt.

The underlying causes of election-related violence going back to 1992 remain unaddressed, Human Rights Watch said. These include disputes over land and the inequitable distribution of national resources. The government promised to address these and many other core issues after the 2007-2008 violence but has failed to do so adequately, Human Rights Watch said.

For the report Human Rights Watch submitted detailed questions to the prime minister, Minister for Provincial Administration and Internal Security, minister of Justice, and Minister for Special Programmes about the government’s efforts to hold free and fair elections without violence, but the government did not respond.

To minimize the risks of violence in March, Human Rights Watch recommended that the government deploy police in adequate numbers to areas of potential conflict and ensure that they perform their duties impartially and with full respect for the law. Criminal justice authorities should promptly investigate any violent episodes, Human Rights Watch said. Where there is evidence, the authorities should prosecute anyone, including government officials and candidates for office, suspected of inciting, planning, or organizing violence.

The African Union (AU) and Kenya’s key partners should apply sustained and coordinated pressure on Kenya’s government to ensure free, fair, and peaceful elections, Human Rights Watch said. It is critically important for the Kenyan government to promptly investigate and prosecute crimes committed during previous, current, and future rounds of political violence, and other elections-related human rights abuses, Human Rights Watch said.  UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon should join Dr. Nkosazana DlaminiZuma, chair of the African Union, to send that strong message.

“Now is the time for Kenya’s international partners to help it fulfill its responsibility to protect its population,” Bekele said. “The UN, AU, and Kenya’s allies should help Kenya prevent violence, and be prepared to respond if those preventive efforts fail.”

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