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Kenya sacrificing human rights for security

Friday December 12 2014

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The government’s response to allegations of the existence of State-run hit squads in an Al Jazeera report broadcast this week was predictable.

Accusing Al Jazeera’s reporters and producers of deliberately sabotaging Kenya’s counter-terrorism campaign, the Interior ministry has threatened to bring charges against those responsible.

Official comment about the substance of AlJazeera’s allegations has been noticeable by its absence, despite the fact that this is just the latest in a series of similar reports dating back several years.

Instead of addressing the claims directly, the government has instead decided to threaten the freedom of the press.
Kenya is currently making the same mistakes that several Western countries made a decade ago. In the face of a heightened terror threat from Al-Qaeda, those in power in Washington, London and other capitals argued that human rights should be sacrificed in order to tackle the enemy.

The results have taken many forms. At home, citizens of the US and UK have grown used to heightened surveillance of their communications.

Those suspected of active support for terrorists have been subject to various judicial measures, such as restrictions on movement and threats to withdraw citizenship. Some court cases have been held in secret in the UK and by military tribunals in the US.


Abroad, far worse abuses of human rights have occurred. The images of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo — so brutally mocked in the videos of execution of Western hostages in orange jumpsuits — will continue to stain the reputation of the US for years to come. The loss of civilian life in Iraq and Afghanistan as a result of Western military action is unforgiveable.


Throughout this period, the retort of supporters of the “war on terror” at home and abroad to such criticism has been that counter-terrorism measures have prevented further attacks against Western targets. The veracity of that claim has hitherto been incontestable: only politicians and senior members of the security forces have access to the intelligence that would prove or disprove such an argument. This privileged access is keenly protected in the name of national security.

The release this week of the US Senate’s report into interrogation techniques used by American security forces against suspected Al-Qaeda members is therefore greatly significant.

Although the report has triggered much debate about what constitutes torture and the nature of party politics in the US, the report’s most important finding was that the interrogation methods practised did not produce any useful intelligence.

In his remarks to the US Senate on Tuesday, John McCain, Republican senator, former presidential candidate and prisoner of war in Vietnam, went further. Not only had the controversial and likely illegal interrogation techniques “failed their purpose — to secure actionable intelligence to prevent further attacks on the US and our allies — but actually damaged our security interests, as well as our reputation as a force for good in the world.”

The Guardian’s report into the origins of ISIS, published on Thursday, offered timely corroboration of McCain’s remarks. In an interview with the British newspaper, Abu Ahmed, one of ISIS’s leaders, described how the group emerged from Camp Bucca, a prison in southern Iraq, during the American occupation.


Although there is no evidence of torture being practised at Camp Bucca, those held there were militarised by the revelations about the mistreatment of prisoners elsewhere in Iraq.

The torture of suspected terrorists that is detailed in the recent Senate report is a product of an understandable but misguided response to terrorist attacks. Whether in New York, Bali, Madrid or Nairobi, the killing of innocent civilians in horrific circumstances has led to popular demands for revenge, punishment and increased surveillance. Such populist sentiments often prove irresistible to political leaders anxious to win votes.

As a result, the contravention of human rights is often depicted as an acceptable price to pay for increased security.

However, an effective counter-terrorism strategy needs accurate intelligence to be passed to security officials voluntarily by citizens. Torture, extra-judicial killings, and suppression of the freedoms of movement, assembly and of the press are not conducive to such a flow of intelligence.

Far more effective counter-terrorism strategies will be enacted with accountable security forces, transparent judicial processes and an inclusive approach to citizenship. In other words, strengthening rather than diluting the Constitution would be a far wiser course of action for Kenyan politicians.

Democracy, justice and human rights are essential tools of counter-terrorism; the choice between security and human rights is a false one.

Prof Branch teaches history and politics at the University of Warwick