Edwine Okuta is a member of the Kenyan National Committee on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, Crimes Against Humanity and All Forms of Discrimination, the Kenyan International Humanitarian Law Committee, and the Law Society of Kenya. As an Advocate of the High Court of Kenya, he holds a Bachelor of Laws as well as Bachelor of Arts in Sociology and Philosophy from the University of Nairobi. Currently, he is pursuing an LLM with a specialization in International Human Rights at the University of London. In November of 2017, Mr. Okuta attended the Global Raphael Lemkin Seminar for Genocide Prevention in Poland.
Which actions, policies, and/or approaches do you feel are the most effective in the long-term prevention of mass atrocities?
I think engaging in historical dialogue anchored on a strong desire to create harmony and awareness is the most effective in long-term prevention of mass atrocities. This approach helps humanity to learn about past atrocities and design ways and methods of prevention. A historical dialogue in the Kenyan context could come in the form of having a memorial center for victims of post-election violence where experiences can be shared and lessons learnt can be well documented. Kenya has attempted to address mass atrocities prevention in a number of ways. The International Criminal Court (ICC) has intervened in the Kenyan post-election violence with limited success.
Kenya also established a Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission to address historical injustices and promote cohesion and yet the subsequent elections proved to be very divisive. A memorial center, in my humble view, would serve to tell the story of past/historical injustices as well as provide insights on the root cause of the post-election violence in Kenya. It will also serve as a resource center for students, scholars, victims and stakeholders to learn and share ideas. In addition to this, a memorial center, by its very nature, is often difficult to ignore and would always stimulate dialogue on mass atrocity prevention. The idea of a memorial center can be achieved through collaboration and partnership of all stakeholders in the field of mass atrocity prevention.
What is the current state of atrocity prevention in Kenya? Can you discuss the impact of the most recent elections on the work of the KNC and, more generally, atrocity prevention work in Kenya?
In Kenya, atrocity crimes are largely related to the election cycles. After the post-election violence in 2007, the immediate focus was on the punishment of the perpetrators. The International Criminal Court intervened and Kenya also established the International Crimes Division (ICD) at the High Court to prosecute the lower cadre of perpetrators. Neither the ICC nor the ICD achieved much in terms of actual prosecutions.
Building on the lessons learnt in 2007, many stakeholders collaborated to promote peace by having peace dialogues during subsequent elections. The expectation was that future elections would be peaceful. However, the recently concluded elections were also characterised by violence in some parts of the country, but not to the scale witnessed in 2007. Although there is relative peace and a sense of normalcy following the commitment of the opposition to work with the government, there are still underlying issues that can potentially trigger violence.
During the recently concluded elections, the KNC collaborated with other stakeholders in promoting peace and engaging in high-level dialogues. However, the peace dialogues must be continuous and should not be limited to the electioneering period for meaningful results to be realised. Therefore, there is an opportunity for KNC to champion and scale up mass atrocity prevention initiatives.
Could you tell us about how your background in international humanitarian law informs your approach to prevention? How can the Kenya National Committee incorporate humanitarian concerns into its work?
Mass atrocity crimes often results from violation of international humanitarian law. Therefore, a concerted effort by various stakeholders to ensure compliance with and respect for various legal instruments of international humanitarian law represents an important tool for the prevention of mass atrocities. Importantly, this requires sound legislation on mass atrocity crimes. In this respect, Kenya National Committee, through the support of the United Nations Office on the Prevention of Genocide and the Responsibility to Protect, has engaged a consultant to draft a Bill on Prevention and Punishment of International Crimes and Atrocities.
What do you remember as the most important element of your visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland and your time at the Raphael Lemkin Seminar? What lessons have you taken away from this experience?
Auschwitz-Birkenau was a humbling experience. On one hand, atrocities expose the darker side of humanity. On the other hand, the coping mechanisms of the victims and the concerted effort not to have a repeat shows the resilience of humanity. The Lemkin Seminar exceeded my expectations. It was very informative and interactive. The diversity of the instructors and participants and their grasp of the content proves that it is a melting pot when it comes to mass atrocity studies.
Who or what inspires you in your continued work on the prevention of mass atrocities?
Mass atrocities have torn nations apart and caused untold suffering. The cost of rebuilding is too high. Some individuals have paid the ultimate price while others have lost the rhythm of life and their dignity in the face of these atrocities. My interest in the field of prevention of mass atrocities is rooted in the impact it has on the lives of ordinary people and the country at large.