What does this word Impunity mean?

By Rob Macaire

I hadn\’t been in Kenya long before I realised that the word \’impunity\’ carries a weight of meanings and implications here.  

When people say impunity they are usually thinking of a network of interrelated problems:  corruption in high places, weakness in the judicial systems, lack of effective oversight or control of some police actions, and the link between money, politics, and the courts which means senior people are never successfully prosecuted.

So if impunity means people not being held to account for their actions, last week was a good week for the fight against it.   A long-running extradition request from Kenya led to the arrest of Mr Yagnesh Devani in London.  Two extradition requests were presented by the territory of Jersey to Kenya in a money laundering case (Mr Samuel Gichuru and Mr Chris Okemo).  

Coincidentally, elsewhere in the world,  last week also saw the arrest of Ratko Mladic in Serbia on war crimes charges outstanding since the civil war of the 1990s, and also the arrest of a suspect in genocide charges from Rwanda.

Of course, all these individuals are innocent until proven guilty.  But accountability, the flipside of impunity, includes the ability for people to be tried fairly in front of a court when accused. 

The same applies in the International Criminal Court cases on post-election violence in Kenya (and I note that the court yesterday threw out the argument by the Kenyan government, against the wishes of the majority of the population, that these cases should not be admitted to the ICC).   

In all these cases, the interests of justice are that individuals accused of crimes should go through a fair and thorough judicial process.  If found not guilty, they will leave with their reputations restored.

I thought there were some interesting comments on this subject from the UK guest speaker at the Kenyan National Prayer Breakfast last week.  Jonathan Aitken, a senior Cabinet Minister who was convicted of perjury and served time in prison, told the audience about his own personal journey of faith, but also the lessons he had learned from his political life – as he put it, quoting a 16th century Lord Chief Justice of England, "Be ye never so high, the law is above you".

For the law to be implemented fairly, one of the key factors is not just what happens inside the courtroom, but what happens outside – in particular to protect witnesses and victims from intimidation, violence and inducement.  

It is disturbing that there are so many indications of this happening in the ICC cases – and other cases in Kenya.   The State has a responsibility to all those victims and witnesses.

As Kenya takes important steps towards judicial reform, and seeks to overcome obstacles of political controversy and obstruction of reform, it\’s important to remember the powerful message sent by the passing of Kenya\’s new constitution – that ultimately this is all about the rule of law, and that countries which follow the rule of law prosper, while those who fall away from it do not.


(Rob Macaire is the British envoy in Nairobi)

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