By ANTHONY DiROSA

Kenya electionsThe following is the second entry in a three part series on Kenya’s 2013 general elections and their implications for similar mass atrocity prevention efforts moving forward. The peaceful Kenyan election this past March was hailed as a major victory for those working to prevent a repeat of the mass atrocities committed in the aftermath of the 2007-2008 elections. From the perspective of the mass atrocity prevention community, Kenya did a commendable job in upholding their responsibility to protect populations from mass atrocities. The international community also succeeded in assisting national and local authorities throughout this process. Thus, both fulfilled their 1st and 2nd pillar responsibilities under the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) framework, which are, accordingly: that a state must uphold its responsibility to protect its populations, and that if that state is unable to do so, the international community has an obligation to assist. Lessons learned from the 2007-2008 atrocities catalyzed both domestic and international momentum to proactively address the risk factors and causes of potential violence. But does the Kenyan case study represent a true shining example of successful R2P application, as well as a model for future applications in unstable democracies? Or were there unique circumstances germane to this case and/or a large overhype of the risks that make this atrocity prevention success not as generalizable a model as some may think? 

Technology, Crowdsourcing and Social Media

Also imperative to note was the use of technology in the Kenyan case study; mass data-mining operations, the utilization of mobile communications and monitoring SMS messages for hate speech are illustrative of the innovative technological platforms that are currently expanding the mass atrocity/conflict prevention toolkit. International partners like TechChange, who teamed up with domestic crisis-mapping tech company Ushahidi, helped fill gaps in conflict prevention capacity by diligently monitoring the Kenyan elections using social media. Ushahidi used Crowdmapping to produce crisis maps, or visual data fed by on-the-ground monitors posting live updates via Twitter, SMS or online posts, which would then be geo-tagged by the system to reveal potential risk areas. As this data was aggregated, monitors could sift through it to identify reports of violence, hate speech, corruption and voter suppression and coordinate responders on the ground. Ushahidi’s work is emblematic of how crisis mapping and crowdsourcing technologies can be used to encourage transparency and accountability in elections, and ultimately reduce the chance of violence.

Early warning/ early response systems across the country, specifically in the Rift Valley, were some of the more replicable conflict prevention mechanisms employed, in terms of best practices and lessons learned for future cases. The USAID-funded Local Empowerment for Peace (LEAP) led the coordination of early warning/early response (EWER) in the Rift Valley, as they trained nearly 600 peace monitors on how to observe, report, and respond to signs of early warning/early response. Monitors would report to a vast network of first responders, which included civil society groups and local administration officials, including police forces. LEAP, along with Mercy Corps, Uchaguzi and Ushahidi, with support from the Canadian International Development Agency, worked in partnership to established two early warning hubs designed to respond to alerts from the monitors. The hubs were operated by data analysts and dispatchers who monitored the Uchaguzi platform, a hate-speech data-mining operation, as peace monitors also fed them information via cell phone. This effective example of partnering humanitarian agencies, civil society groups and tech-firms in joint conflict prevention and early warning/early response initiatives is a model that ought to be studied and replicated in the future.

Kenya’s government, specifically the Communications Commission, also led the way through innovative measures requiring screening of  all short message service (SMS) texts for bulk dissemination by politicians.  Kenya’s National Steering Committee on Media Monitoring took charge of identifying and reprimanding blogs with hateful and provocative material. New measures called on mobile companies to intercept any mass texts that may provoke violence. These were seen as reactionary policy measures intended to avoid what happened in 2007-08, when ethno-political hate messages were spread by political groups, leading directly to inter-ethnic violence. The suspension or censoring of mass communication technologies in conflict prone settings aren’t unique to Kenya, as SMS texts were suspended in the DRC in 2011, as well as Kashmir in 2012 and Egypt last year. International, domestic and local level efforts to curtail one of the main catalysts for violence in 2008, indigenous language media outlets, were also laudable. The media, mainly radio stations, were largely broadcasters of peace this time around, as commercial and government run stations were deeply involved in educating voters on the issues, focusing on civic education, preaching restraint and tolerance, and avoiding any and all political incitement. International media training agencies were involved in advising journalists on how to report critically without stirring up ethnic and sectarian tensions. Religious leaders also played a large role as conveyors of peace with messages of tolerance and respect aimed at their constituents. Although there were widespread criticisms and accusations that Kenya’s media engaged in self-censorship and failed to fulfill its watchdog role, it’s clear that given the alternative, the result should be deemed a success.

The next part of this Case Study for GenPrev series will focus on how the Kenyan model can be used in future R2P cases, and what the implications are for future atrocity prevention efforts.

Photo: The New York Times

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