The risk of political violence in Kenya is "perilously high" ahead of next month's election, Human Rights Watch (HRW) warned in a report released on Thursday (February 7th).
The group's 58-page report, "High Stakes: Political Violence and the 2013 Elections in Kenya", says the Kenyan government's limited progress on promised reforms and failure to address ongoing and past human rights abuses have contributed to tensions across Kenya prior to general elections on March 4th.
The HRW report is based upon interviews with over 225 people around Kenya, with particular concentration on Central, Coast, Eastern, North Eastern, Nyanza, and Rift Valley Provinces.
The report suggests that Kenyan authorities must take urgent steps, including the arrest and fair trial of those who directly incite or organise violence, to help ensure peaceful and fair elections.
"Violence is not inevitable, but the warning signs are too bright to ignore," said HRW Africa Director Daniel Bekele. "The government has failed to address the root causes of violence that have marred multi-party elections since 1992, and especially the atrocities of 2007-2008, so urgent steps are needed to protect Kenyans."
About 1,200 people were killed and about 300,000 displaced during the 2007-2008 post-election violence, according to the United Nations.
The report cites a common theme across Kenya: the unwillingness of the government, the justice system, and other authorities to reform the security forces, tackle corruption, disband criminal groups, and hold accountable those responsible for violence. It says the "near total impunity" for the violence that took place after the 2007 elections has left the people who committed those crimes free to commit them again.
"The victims of violence feel that justice has passed them by, and the people who caused the violence feel protected from the law," Bekele said. "This is a dangerous cocktail for the approaching elections."
Another report released on January 30th by the international human rights watchdog Amnesty International made similar allegations.
The report, "Police Reform in Kenya: A Drop in the Ocean", documents numerous instances of human rights violations by the police targeting particular communities, and alleges that the Kenyan government has done little to hold responsible police officers accountable.
"One of the most visible instances of this has been the increasingly discriminatory policing and harassment of people of Somali origin across the country, amidst rising xenophobia in the country," the report said.
Police have also been unable to prevent repeated attacks in Tana River Delta, which raises "serious concerns about the security forces' response to the situation and their ability to protect the human rights of people in Tana", according to the report.
The group warned that the failure of police reforms would mean that the same police structures in place during the 2007 elections would also be responsible for the security of the upcoming election.
Tensions surround ICC trial
The HRW report said tensions have been stoked by the upcoming International Criminal Court (ICC) trial involving presidential candidate Uhuru Kenyatta and his running mate William Ruto for their alleged role in orchestrating violence after the 2007 election.
The trial, set to begin on April 11th, could clash with a presidential run-off vote, due within a month if a candidate fails to win 51% of total votes in the first round.
US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson on Thursday warned Kenyans that "choices have consequences", in apparent caution over the possible victory of Kenyatta and Ruto, according to Kenya's The Standard.
"Kenyans must know that individuals have reputation and images built through their history and must be careful against making choices that might impact negatively on the economy of the nation and the region," he said.
In December, former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan warned Kenyans not to elect leaders facing trails at the ICC, saying the move could jeopardise Kenya's foreign relations.