NAIROBI — Two months ago, Kenyans elected a president and deputy president both facing charges at the International Criminal Court (ICC). While the two leaders have promised to cooperate with the court, some are wondering whether they are already using their influence to skirt justice.
Earlier this month, Kenya’s representative to the United Nations submitted a letter to the U.N. Security Council asking the body to terminate the ICC case against President Uhuru Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto.
Both are charged for their alleged roles orchestrating the inter-ethnic violence that followed the 2007 election, in which more than 1,100 people were killed.
The letter argues that the election of Kenyatta and Ruto this year sends the “message that the two persons are not only innocent but deserving of responsibilities in the highest office of the land.” It also questions the legitimacy of the ICC.
Both leaders have denied having anything to do with the letter, and say, as they always have, that they will cooperate with the court.
Maina Kiai, a Kenyan political activist with the group InformAction, said this action is typical of the two leaders. They have not necessarily broken any laws, but they have been sending mixed signals about their intentions.
“So it’s not illegal, but these are signals that are being presented that they are not in any hurry to clear their names. So, delay, delay, delay and whether that delay will turn out to be non-cooperation, who knows?”
With the cooperation question in mind, Kenyan political observers are watching Ruto’s and Kenyatta’s every move carefully.
Members of Kenya’s parliament questioned whether Ruto’s recent trip to West Africa was really about finding allies to help shoot down the ICC case, an accusation the deputy president denies.
Nic Cheeseman, an Oxford University lecturer in African politics, said the U.N. letter and Ruto’s travels could be parts of the same political maneuver.
He said, “The strategy at the minute seems to be ‘Let’s build as much political support as we can against the ICC case going ahead, let's see if we can make it a really hot political issue, let's see if we can make it Africa against the West and then maybe in that context we’ll get space for greater support for us to stop complying, or for political pressure to be put on this court behind the scenes for the court to drop the case,’ or something along those lines.”
Of course, another option is for Ruto and Kenyatta to just wait the court out. ICC cases tend to take years to come to a conclusion, meaning the two defendants could potentially finish their first term in office before a decision is made.
The ICC has already delayed the proceedings against the two defendants.
Maina Kiai said the leniency of the court underscores the fundamental weakness of the international justice system.
“There is absolutely no country in the world where if someone is accused of killing two, three, four, five people are they then allowed to go free and then turn up at their cases when they wish," said Kiai. "Almost everybody who is accused of such crimes is held in pre-trial detention.”
But Human Rights Watch international justice counsel Liz Evenson said despite some holes, the ICC still has teeth.
“It’s not a perfect system, it’s still a system that can be gamed, but I think it’s one that’s gaining in strength," she said. "And what’s needed is for the international community to support these justice processes.”
Evenson notes that Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has been restricted in his travels because of an ICC arrest warrant. Of course, Bashir is a fugitive, who has never showed up at The Hague, while the two Kenyan leaders have so far complied with the court.
Ruto’s trial is scheduled to open May 28 and Kenyatta’s starts July 9. But any final outcome could be many years away and a lot could happen by then.