Nairobi – Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir on Friday defied an International Criminal Court arrest warrant for war crimes and genocide to attend the promulgation of Kenya’s new constitution.
Al-Bashir’s presence overshadowed a ceremony in Nairobi marking the signing into law of the new constitution, which many hope will signal a bright new future for Kenya.
Human rights bodies, including the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and No Peace Without Justice (NPWJ), instantly protested, saying al-Bashir’s presence could tarnish Kenya’s reputation.
Kenya is a party to the Rome Statute, which set up the court and requires the East African nation to arrest him. The court has no police force and relies on its member states to arrest suspects.
The president took his place alongside other African leaders in the city centre Uhuru Park to celebrate the promulgation of the constitution – part of a reform process aimed at preventing a repeat of the violence that followed disputed presidential elections in December 2007.
Attempts to contact government officials to comment on al-Bashir’s presence were unsuccessful, but Kenyan Foreign Minister Moses Wetangula told the Daily Nation he would not be arrested.
‘He is here in response to our invitation to all our neighbours and the sub-region to attend this historic moment for Kenya,’ he said. ‘He is a state guest. You do not harm or embarrass your guest. That is not African.’
New York-based Human Rights Watch had earlier called on Kenya to fulfill its obligations and arrest the leader.
‘Kenya will forever tarnish the celebration of its long-awaited constitution if it welcomes an international fugitive to the festivities,’ said Elise Keppler, senior counsel in the International Justice Program at Human Rights Watch.
‘Even worse, hosting al-Bashir would throw into question Kenya’s commitment to cooperate with the ICC in its Kenyan investigation.’
The ICC is probing the post-election violence in Kenya, which claimed at least 1,300 lives, and is expected to issue arrest warrants against two or three senior figures.
Alison Smith, Legal Counsel with NPWJ, said it was ‘ill-advised’ for Kenya to associate itself with al-Bashir – currently the only sitting head of state indicted for war crimes.
‘While it is certainly in the interest of President al-Bashir to expand the range of countries where he is seen to travel with impunity, it is not in Kenya’s interest, nor in the interest of its leaders,’ she said.
It was the second time al-Bashir has visited an ICC member state since the court issued an arrest warrant against him for crimes in Sudan’s western Darfur province in March 2009.
He travelled to Chad in July after the court added three counts of genocide to the warrant relating to the long Darfur conflict, which the United Nations says has claimed 300,000 lives. Sudan says only 10,000 people died.
At the ceremony, Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki signed into law the long-awaited new constitution, weeks after it was passed in a national referendum.
A massive crowd gathered to watch the president sign the document at a ceremony in the city centre Uhuru Park.
The assembled masses cheered as Kibaki waved the document in the air triumphantly, before a 21-gun salute and the hoisting a giant national flag heralded the dawn of what politicians are referring to as ‘the second Kenyan republic’.
‘This moment marks the decisive conclusion of the 20-year journey in search of a new constitutional order,’ Kibaki said. ‘This new constitution is an embodiment of our best hopes, aspirations, ideals and values for a peaceful and more prosperous nation.’
The constitution, which replaces the document created after Kenya gained independence from Britain in 1963, aims to peg back the power of the president through establishing a two-tier parliament and decentralizing power.
Many believe that transferring some control from the executive branch would reduce the stakes in future presidential elections. In the past, whichever tribe has gained control of the presidency has seen great benefit, leading to clashes such as those at the presidential elections.
More than 1,300 people died in the tribal clashes that followed opposition accusations the elections were rigged in favour of Kibaki.
Analysts say the new constitution should boost East Africa’s largest economy, which has struggled over the last few years due to the post-election violence and the global recession.