In 1973, more than 20,000 people from the Endorois, an indigenous pastoralist community in Kenya were evicted from their lands by the Kenyan government to make way for a game reserve and tourist resort. For years, the Endorois community tried to fight the government’s decision, without success. Turned away by the courts in Kenya, the Endorois took their case in 2003 to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR).
In May 2009, at the ACHPR’s 45th Ordinary Session in Banjul, Gambia, the Commission issued a decision (download the PDF), declaring that the Kenyan government had violated the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, a convention that Kenya is bound to follow. But why are we celebrating this decision only now? Because, for it to be a legally-binding decision on the Kenyan government, it had to first be adopted by the African Union's General Assembly, and then to be signed by the President of the African Union - and that's exactly what happened on February 4th, 2010. This meant that the Kenyan government now is legally bound to restitute the land and compensate the Endorois for their loss. There is no appeal, and there is no way to repeal this decision - Kenya has to implement it, and the government has to submit progress reports to the African Union. Any delay or inaction may prove costly to the Kenyan government, as the African Union has the power to bring sanctions.
For me, as an African activist, this is truly a landmark moment, for three key reasons:
1) this is evidence that the African Commission and the African Union are making sure the rules are applied and respected as stipulated in African conventions signed by African countries;
2) justice is alive and, despite disruptions caused by political violence and disorder, Africans can trust their justice system - and this decision strengthens it; and
3) this decision has an impact not only on Kenya, but serves as a precedent for cases brought by minorities in other African domestic jurisdictions.
It also matters to WITNESS. The Endorois argued their case to the Commission with the help of a Kenyan organization called CEMIRIDE (Centre for Minority Rights Development - here is their press release about the decision), and WITNESS partnered with CEMIRIDE and the Endorois to produce an evidentiary video for submission at the ACPHR - the first ever at the Commission.
In the right hands, in the right settings, video is proving its ability to strengthen social justice in very concrete ways. The WITNESS/CEMIRIDE video demonstrated the cultural and religious importance of the land to the Endorois community; the deplorable living conditions of the resettlement area that the Endorois had been moved to after being evicted from the game reserve; and the impact that the eviction had on them emotionally, physically and spiritually. The Endorois representatives who offered video testimonials to the African Commission were astonished at the impact their stories had on the Commission, and that it has helped bring them the justice they had sought; for many of them, video was the only way of bringing their voices into the courtroom, as many of the Endorois elders were too old to travel on such a long journey to the court.
First and foremost, this is a dream come true for the Endorois people - they can finally return to their land and practice their rights as recognized by the African Charter. But importantly, this is also a lesson learned for the the Kenyan government, as well as a clear message to other African countries where minorities are struggling to have their rights respected - and a new hope for those minorities themselves.