It may have been another rainy morning in The Hague but it was no average day. This morning, the trial of Kenya’s deputy president, William Ruto, got underway at the International Criminal Court (ICC). The case, and a separate but related case against Uhuru Kenyatta, Kenya’s president, due to start in November, have their origins in the election violence that rocked Kenya at the end of 2007-2008. Within a couple of months, at least 1,100 people were killed, thousands injured, and more than a half million displaced.
For Kenya, the trial marks the first time a court will weigh evidence to determine responsibility for organizing and financing the mobs that killed and set fire to parts of the Rift Valley. Lack of political will on the part of the government has meant that the courthouse doors have been closed to victims in Kenya, and, as their lawyer put it in court today, they look to the ICC to step into that breach. In a country where impunity has repeatedly fuelled political violence, the trial is a chance to break that deadly cycle.
For the ICC, only a decade old and with just two trials completed, the Kenya cases underline the importance of its role as a court of last resort. It is also a court before which political office is no excuse. I watched from the public gallery as the charges were read out and Ruto and a co-defendant, the radio broadcaster Joshua arap Sang, were asked to enter their pleas. Unfolding before me was the aspiration of this court set in motion, that is, that no one should be above the law.
There are many hurdles ahead for this trial. The office of the prosecutor has struggled in other cases to prove charges, and the Kenyan cases have been dogged by reports of witnesses withdrawing due to fear and intimidation, as well as defense accusations of superficial investigations.
The cases have also become deeply politicized, including in Kenya, where a majority of Kenyans once heartily supported the ICC process as the last, best chance for justice. That support has dropped, for now, partly due to Kenyatta and Ruto’s electoral campaign to portray themselves as victims and the ICC as a tool of Western imperialism. This ignores that the ICC stepped in only after Kenya’s leaders broke their promises to hold national trials.
Whatever happens next, today has been one small, but significant, step forward in accounting for crimes committed in Kenya.