The Responsibility to Prevent: Lessons from Kenya’s post-electoral crisis

Civic Action,Inclusive Politics14 Jun 2010Serena Sharma

On 27 December 2007, Kenyans went to the polls in the most spirited national elections since the return to multiparty politics in 1992. As results began to pour in from key constituencies, rumours of election-rigging began to surface. Shortly thereafter, the country became engulfed in waves of violence, which killed over a thousand people, left up 600,000 displaced, and created an enabling environment for systematic rape.

In response to the escalating violence, an African Union Panel of Eminent Personalities was assembled under the leadership of former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan. Their task was to facilitate a mediation process between Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga. Within several weeks, the violence had ceased, and a framework was put in place for a peace agreement.

In the aftermath of this crisis, the Kenyan case has become increasingly associated with the responsibility to protect (R2P). Owing to the swift and well-coordinated action of international actors, which eventually brought a halt to the violence, commentators have deemed the response to Kenya’s post-electoral crisis the ‘purest’ example of R2P. The amount of attention this case has garnered owes much to the renewed importance of prevention within R2P circles. In particular, persistent opposition to R2P has placed a premium on emphasizing its non-coercive dimensions. Whereas debates over R2P have tended to be polarized by two distinct options – responding with military force to mass atrocities, or doing nothing in the face of such atrocities – the case of Kenya appears to offer a way forward by demonstrating how the principles of R2P might be applied in the absence of resorting to force. Accordingly, this case has featured heavily in the UN’s plan for implementation, which endeavours to underpin R2P with a preventive lens. Given the overwhelmingly positive appraisal of this case, explicit efforts are now being directed towards replicating the successes of the Kenyan case in other emerging R2P situations. Notwithstanding its perceived successes, the attempt to translate this case into a blueprint for R2P prevention appears to draw the wrong lessons from the Kenyan crisis. Although the international response did help forestall the violence, the mediation process fell short of effective preventive action in two crucial respects. For one, indicators of violence prior to the crisis, which might have been acted upon at an earlier stage, went largely ignored by the international community. Secondly, in the interests of halting the violence as quickly as possible, the mediation tended to privilege short-term measures, such as power-sharing. Though effective in the interim, such an approach remains unlikely to prevent a recurrence of violence in the future.

Due to the neglect of the pre-crisis and post-crisis phases, the international response to this crisis can more accurately be described as a metaphorical bandaging of Kenya’s wounds. The positive assessment of this case among proponents of R2P derives, in large measure, from a tendency to focus on one particular snapshot of the crisis: the mediation and immediate cessation of violence.

Far from providing a blueprint for future R2P preventive action, the Kenyan case exposes a number of fundamental challenges associated with preventing the commission of mass atrocities.