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Give teeth to oversight board

Monday June 21 2010


The UN Special Rapporteur on extra-judicial killings, Mr Philip Alston, presented his reports for 2009-10 to the United Nations Human Rights Council earlier this month, recommending that Kenya increase the scope and independence of the Oversight Board to allow it to investigate unlawful killings by police.

Unlawful killings by the police remain a problem in Kenya; they are historically protected by a culture of impunity that largely continues to this day. The Board was established in 2008 to increase police accountability by monitoring potential abuses of power.

However, with no independent investigative powers of its own, the Board is relegated to the role of record-keeper, passing complaints on to the police and then, along with those who filed the complaint, sitting and waiting.

“Without their own independent investigatory powers, external oversight bodies are forced to rely upon police investigations, which can be inadequate or nonexistent,” Alston reports.

He recommends that an oversight board instead have the same powers as a police investigator. Alston also recommends that Board members be appointed democratically, with the agreement of several bodies, including the legislature, as is done in South Africa and Northern Ireland, to ensure that there is a rigorous and fair selection process.

In Kenya, the sole authority to hire and fire Board members is the Minister for Internal Security. To further ensure independence from political influence, the Board should also report to Parliament, rather than directly to the minister.

Finally, Mr Alston emphasises that long-term and financial security are crucial. In Kenya, the Police Oversight Board was only established through a Gazette notice by the Minister for Internal Security, which means that it can be repealed just as easily.

Rather, any oversight agency must be set up by legislation to ensure its long-term security. This must be accompanied by stable, long-term funding. When an agency’s budget allocation is not guaranteed by Parliament, it is subject to the whims of those in power.

In Cameroon, for instance, the Human Rights Commission lost funding for two years after criticising government abuses. That should not be allowed to happen in Kenya.

Mr Alston did praise the Kenyan National Commission on Human Rights’ “highly skilled and dedicated staff” for its work in exposing police killings and death squads in Nairobi, emphasising that human resources are equally as important as financial resources.

This report is a renewed call for reform after Mr Alston’s 2009 report documented a “systematic attempt to silence criticism of Kenyan security forces” through police brutality, torture, and killings.

As Parliament considers the Bill for the establishment of a new Independent Police Oversight Authority, the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative urges the government to take heed of the recommendations made in this latest report by the Special Rapporteur.

Mr Duffy is a programme officer, Access to Justice (East Africa), Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative.