A few months ago, I listened to a Kenyan man talk about his brother who has been missing since April 2015. “To see the dead body of your family member is painful, but you at least know he is dead,” he told me. As the world commemorates the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances today, I think of him and many others I interviewed for Human Rights Watch’s report on people who “disappeared” after last being seen in the custody of Kenya’s security agents.
Others have reported similar findings. The official Kenya National Commission on Human Rights documented numerous similar cases, as have local rights groups and the Kenyan media.
Enforced disappearances are devastating. Family and friends of those disappeared suffer tremendously, often never learning whether their loved one is alive or dead. Under international human rights law, an enforced disappearance occurs when a person has been detained by government officials or their agents, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of the person’s liberty or to disclose the fate or whereabouts of the person.
In Kenya, Muslim communities are among those most affected by disappearances, caught between the threat of the armed Islamist group, Al-Shabab, and security forces that carry out abusive counterterrorism operations. While Kenyan government officials often condemn Al-Shabab’s horrific violence, they remain troublingly silent about security forces’ role in enforced disappearances.
Families who report their loved ones as missing to police, providing witness accounts of arrest, often receive no response or are told the police have no information. In some cases, government officials have suggested – without evidence – that Al-Shabab may have killed these people. When United States Secretary of State John Kerry recently visited Kenya, he said Kenyan authorities told him that people reported as disappeared may have crossed the Somali border to join Al-Shabab. This may be true in some cases, but without credible investigations into the disappearances – and considering Kenya’s counterterrorism response – these assertions should comfort no one.
Some diplomats suggested to me that perhaps the disappearances are conducted by “rogue” security officers. But the avalanche of evidence and the sophisticated inter-agency coordination of the operations make that unlikely. Even if true, without the government’s commitment to investigate the abuses and prosecute all those responsible, “rogue” officers will never face accountability.
Today, as the world stands in solidarity with victims of enforced disappearance, President Uhuru Kenyatta should commit to launching a commission of inquiry into these disappearances. Such an effort would be a first step toward justice.