New Report Documents Counterterrorism and Human Rights Abuses in Kenya and Uganda

NEW YORK—Leading civil society groups in East Africa have joined the Open Society Justice Initiative in calling on the governments of Kenya and Uganda to end a disturbing pattern of human rights abuses associated with their continuing efforts to fight terrorism in the region.  

A new joint report also calls on the United States and Britain to ensure that their substantial support for counter-terrorism and policing efforts in the two countries does not tacitly or directly support human rights abuses by the recipients.

The 46-page report from the Open Society Justice Initiative, “Counterterrorism and Human Rights Abuses in Kenya and Uganda: The World Cup Bombing and Beyond,” is supported by the East Africa Law Society, the Kenyan Section of the International Commission of Jurists, and the Pan African Lawyers Union.

The report focuses on the aftermath of the 2010 bombings in Kampala, the Ugandan capital, which killed over 70 people. The Somali-based group al-Shabaab subsequently claimed responsibility for the attacks, which were directed at people who had gathered to watch the final match of the 2010 World Cup.

The joint Ugandan and Kenyan responses to the attacks included: the illegal transfer of at least 12 Kenyan and Ugandan suspects from Kenya to Uganda without due process; the alleged mistreatment and holding incommunicado of suspects in Uganda; and the detention of both lawyers and human rights activists, including Al-Amin Kimathi, a prominent Kenyan human rights advocate who was held for 12 months in Kampala.

The report also details allegations that U.S. officials physically and mentally abused the suspects in Kampala, and that the United Kingdom also took part in their interrogations.

The report says that a readiness to usurp the rule of law has again been evident in the response of Kenyan police to increased attacks within Kenya attributed to al-Shabaab and its supporters. It notes a series of unexplained killings and disappearances of terrorist suspects; the enactment of new anti-terrorism legislation that civil society groups fear will give the government overly broad authority to arrest, monitor, and suppress individuals in contravention of their human rights; and a trend of indiscriminately focusing on specific communities, such as Somalis in Kenya, because they are perceived as a terrorism threat.

George Kegoro, executive director of the Kenyan Section of the International Commission of Jurists, said: “The grenade attacks on police stations, clubs, and churches that the Kenyan government attributes to terrorists are unquestionably unacceptable. But so too is the government’s response, which is trampling on the rights of Kenyans, reducing the public’s confidence in government, and alienating minority communities. The conduct of the government has contributed to the ongoing radicalization of our youth.”  

Jonathan Horowitz, a legal officer with the Open Society Justice Initiative who worked on the report, said: “This report shows how security forces in East Africa that benefit from extensive U.S. and British support have pursued unlawful counterterrorism tactics. Washington and London must make it absolutely clear that any counterterrorism assistance they provide is contingent upon Kenyan and Ugandan forces conducting themselves according to the rule of law, and respecting human rights. Acting otherwise will only lead to greater insecurity.”

The report’s recommendations include:

Kenya and Uganda must conduct proper public investigations into allegations of violations of the human rights of the World Cup bombing suspects; the U.S. and Britain must provide the fullest information on the role of their security officials in these interrogations.

Uganda and Kenya must publicly renounce the practice of illegal renditions.

Kenya and Uganda must ensure that their counterterrorism operations and laws comply with international human rights standards, while the U.S. and Britain must make it clear that assistance is contingent on this being the case.

The U.S. must make public its procedures regarding the conduct of its officials in overseas interrogations or investigations in cases where the host country does not comply with international human rights standards. 

All four countries should pursue greater levels of transparency regarding the extent and nature of counterterrorism and military support.

Open Society's work on national security and counterterrorism issues includes investigating and combating human rights violations around the world. In the U.S., we support work to promote national security policies that respect human rights, civil liberties, and the rule of law.