Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki has named a chairman of Kenya’s Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation Commission. After delays and much wrangling between parliament and the chief executive, last Wednesday’s selection of veteran diplomat Bethuel Kiplagat and nine other commissioners will enable the panel to start investigating unlawful killings, human rights violations, corruption, and ethnic clashes that have occurred over a 40-year period.
In 2003, law Professor Makau Mutua chaired the task force that designed the panel’s operations. From Buffalo, New York, where he serves as dean of the State University Law School, Professor Mutua outlined the body’s objectives. He explained its mandate has its limits.
“The commission does not have any power to prosecute anyone. The commission is charged with the responsibility of collecting evidence, investigating injustices that are taking place since 1963. This includes various massacres, various political killings, and such atrocities. It will compile its report based upon these investigations. So the commission does not really prosecute anyone, and will not take place in connection with the trials which will take place at the Hague,” he emphasized.
Although long sought, the commission, explains Mutua, gained a special urgency for being implemented after last year’s presidential election violence.
“There is a lot of pressure in the country to hold those people accountable. I think the commission wants to be seen to be effective. I think Ambassador Bethuel Kiplagat, who is the chair of the commission, has an opportunity to lead an effective commission. He’s assisted by the vice chair of the commission, Miss Betty Murungi, who is a very well known and a very credible human rights activist,” he said.
Early in life, Ambassador Kiplagat worked for the Christian Council of Kenya. He went on to become one of the country’s most prized foreign diplomats and served as Ambassador to France and High Commissioner in the United Kingdom. Later, he became Kenya’s Permanent Secretary and Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and also was appointed to mediate the conflict in Somalia. Although Kiplagat also worked loyally under former Kenyan President Daniel Arap Moi whose regime was widely regarded as repressive, Mutua says Bethuel Kiplagat has the credentials for his new post, and is perceived by many Kenyans as “a good man.”
Three of the newly named commissioners are from outside Kenya: Gertrude Chawatama from Zambia, Berhanu Dinka of Ethiopia, and Ronald Siye from the United States.
“I think the idea of having international commissioners is to try to break up what might develop in the commission in a direction of think contested ethnic loyalties among Kenyans. So there, the idea, I think, is to make sure the commission cannot be dominated or will not veer towards tribalization by any particular sector of Kenyan society,” he noted.
The University of Buffalo law professor adds that the bringing of international persons onto the commission provides the perspectives of other cultures, especially other African countries and the United States, and adds credibility to the commission.
He also acknowledges that commission chairman Kiplagat’s diplomatic experience and connections could prove influential with Kenya’s key economic and foreign policy partners, Britain, France, and the United States, and may have been a large factor in his securing President Kibaki’s appointment.