Human rights activists are hailing a landmark ruling by a pan-African body as a major victory for indigenous people across Africa. The ruling orders the Kenyan government to take steps to return land to a group of indigenous people forced out by the government in the 1970s from Lake Bogoria, one of the top tourist destinations in the country.
The ruling by the Gambia-based African Commission on Human and People's Rights is centered around a complaint lodged in 2003 against the Kenyan government by the Endorois, an indigenous group who had their ancestral land taken away from them to make way for Lake Bogoria National Park and tourist facilities.
The complaint followed unsuccessful attempts by the Endorois to reverse the government's decision. The government also rebuffed their demand for an adequate share of the tourism revenues generated by the popular reserve, which is famous for its geothermal springs and resident pink flamingoes.
For nearly three decades, about 60,000 Endorois, who used to earn their livelihoods from raising cattle and goats, have been forced to live in an arid, poverty-stricken area of Kenya, largely dependent on food aid.
On Thursday, the pan-African Commission said the eviction violated the rights of the Endorois, who had a clear historic attachment to the land. The commission ordered the Kenyan government to take steps to restore the land to the community and to pay compensation within three months.
Cynthia Morel worked on the case as a senior legal advisor for Minority Rights Groups International. She says while the ruling is specifically aimed at the Kenyan government, it constitutes a milestone in the development of indigenous rights in Africa as a whole.
"What is very exciting about this judgment is that the jurisprudence is set for everyone in the continent," said Morel. "The message it sends is that any other country in Africa facing similar problems would also lose a case before the African Commission if similar facts are brought before it."
In Kenya, the commission's decision is likely to put additional pressure on a government that has been struggling to implement electoral, constitutional, and land reforms promised in the aftermath of the deadly 2007 post-election violence.
The international community has urged Kenya to strengthen the rights of minorities, indigenous people, and marginalized groups and address decades of complaints of illegal land grabbing to prevent a repeat of the violence that ignited along tribal lines and nearly tore the country apart.
Morel says the Kenyan government can show its commitment to reform by quickly implementing the African Commission's binding decision. "The Africa charter on Human and People's Rights is a binding instrument upon Kenya and Kenya has ratified it," she said. "The African Commission is in charge of interpreting that charter, so its decisions do have some force."
"And especially with the African Union having adopted the decision, there is some obligation there that Kenya simply cannot ignore. Also, from the donor community's perspective, they cannot afford to stand back and not take any interest in this implementation because with any chance of Kenya or any other government flouting this judgment, it only strengthens the culture of impunity," she added.
In another first for the African Commission, it also condemned the Kenyan government for not providing sufficient compensation or suitable alternative land for grazing to the Endorois people and hindering the community's development.