Kenya has taken a step forward in stemming rampant abuses by security forces. The Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR), a constitutionally mandated body, today started investigating how insecurity has affected human rights in the increasingly restive coast region, where there have been scores of allegations of abuses by security forces.

Kenya police officers on patrol in the coastal town of Lamu in June 2014 in the wake of a series of attacks in Lamu and Tana River counties. Kenyan security forces responded to the attacks with abusive operations targeting Muslims and ethnic Somali Kenyans in the two counties.

© 2014 Reuters

Most of these abuses stem from security forces’ heavy-handed response to Al-Shabab attacks. Coastal communities have paid a heavy price. In June 2014, Al-Shabab launched a deadly night raid, killing at least 49 people in the coastal town of Mpeketoni, the first of a series of attacks in Lamu and Tana River counties over the next weeks. An investigation by several human rights organizations such as Haki Africa and Muslims for Human Rights (MUHURI) found that Kenyan security agencies were abusive in responding to the attacks. Haki Africa was the first to debunk the notion promoted mainly by politicians that the attack was linked to the political opposition, fingering Al-Shabab and highlighting key human rights concerns

Human Rights Watch found that security forces were slow to respond to these attacks, and when they did they rounded up villagers – mostly Muslims and members of Somali ethnicities – and beat and arbitrarily detained them. All those arrested were either released without charge, had charges dropped, or were acquitted for lack of evidence. 

Calls for accountability for security force abuses in the coast region have been ignored. Numerous allegations of abuses, including extrajudicial killings and disappearances, have barely been investigated. A damning report of the Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA), a civilian police accountability institution, catalogued the botched police response to the Al-Shabab attack in Mpeketoni, but the government hasn’t acted on its recommendations.

The KNCHR inquiry offers a rare opportunity to highlight more recent abuses and renew public attention on this worrying issue. KNCHR chair Kagwiria Mbogori said at least 303 cases of extra judicial killings, disappearances, torture, and related human rights violations have been reported along the coast since 2013. And this is before the inquiry, which will likely receive other fresh complaints, even kicks off.

It’s essential that this time the findings and recommendations of the inquiry are not brushed aside by government officials, as has been the case in the past. Kenyans are yearning for justice.