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Kenyans Head to the Polls - and a New Displacement Crisis?

Kenyans follow the proceedings of the second presidential debate on a big screen along the streets of Kenya's capital Nairobi (REUTERS/Gregory Olando).

Last night, Kenyans across the country crowded around radios and televisions for the second round of Presidential election debates. With elections less than a week away, tensions are running high. This is no ordinary election. The country’s last elections, in 2007, unleashed a surge of violence that left 1,300 dead and forced 600,000 from their homes – including some of my family friends, who fled the village of Ahero in western Kenya and eventually found shelter in the soccer stadium in Kisumu, Kenya’s third largest city. One of the leading presidential candidates and his running mate have been charged by the International Criminal Court with crimes against humanity for allegedly orchestrating much of this violence. Our friends have returned to Ahero, but scores of Kenyans will not be able to cast their votes on Monday from their home towns: an estimated 250,000 Kenyans are currently displaced. Some have still not been able to go home – or find a new home – after the last round of election violence. In 2012 alone, over 118,000 people were newly displaced by ethnically and politically charged violence.

On top of all this, in addition to a new president and MPs, Monday’s vote will see Kenyans elect representatives to a host of new positions created under the country’s 2010 Constitution. Chaloka Beyani, the Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), points out that, “Elections this year are not only about national positions, but also about local ones. Power struggles over political representation at the local level have already resulted in new displacements in some instances.”

In order to ensure that Monday’s vote does not repeat the tragedy of 2007/2008, the government needs to ramp up efforts to prevent and prepare for potential violence and displacement. As the Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons, has noted, “Instances of localized violence likely to result in the arbitrary displacement of persons in Kenya have steadily increased in the run up to the elections.” To its credit, the government of Kenya has laid the foundation for this prevention work by adopting a new IDP Act in December 2012 and approving a comprehensive IDP policy. According to the Special Rapporteur, “The IDP Act clearly obliges the government and others to guard against violence and prevent internal displacement.”

In addition to its obligation to prevent violence and new waves of displacement, the government of Kenya – and the international community – have a responsibility to hold the architects of the 2007/2008 crisis to account. Whatever the outcome of next week’s elections, this challenge must still be faced. In the meantime, I’ll be thinking of our friends in Ahero, hoping that the next time they visit the Kisumu soccer stadium, it will be to see a match and not to stay the night.

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