Jo Kibugu

Justice: a view from East Africa

February 06, 2015 - Joe Kibugu, Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, Nairobi

This guest blog is written by Joe Kibugu, Eastern Africa representative of the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, based in Nairobi, Kenya

To be a credible global human rights champion, the UK must permit legal accountability for its businesses for human rights violations committed overseas.

There is a general consensus that Africa is an important destination for investment, particularly in the extractive industry and agriculture sector. But although investment has the potential to lift millions out of poverty, it can also lead to human rights violations among local communities and other stakeholders. 

International human rights standards demand access to remedy for victims of human rights violations, whether committed by state agents or third parties, including corporations.

The reality however is that in many jurisdictions in Africa the rule of law is weak, not only in relation to corporate abuses, but also other human rights violations. Whereas states have the primary obligation to redress human rights occurring in their territory, structural and procedural obstacles have made it hard to hold international companies to account. For victims, this means that hope for redress lies beyond their borders.

The UK has sought to be a force of good by not only acknowledging past violations committed by its agents but also prosecuting cases involving other countries. In settling the case of atrocities committed by the British army in Kenya, the UK signified it recognized and sympathized with the victims of human rights violations by its subjects. As lawyer Martin Day said, the settlement was a way of 'bringing hope to a community where none had previously existed'.

Today, I suspect many Kenyans are grateful that the UK’s Serious Fraud Office unearthed and prosecuted a British company which corruptly made payments to Kenyan officials for business contracts. The crimes seems to have escaped the radar of the local Kenyan public justice arms.

This evolving responsibility of the UK to rein-in the conduct of its subjects, especially where other jurisdictions may be unwilling or unable to provide accessible remedy, ought to be extended to corporate conduct.  It would greatly erode the UK’s stature if UK companies, taking advantage of weak public justice systems, contributed to human suffering abroad without any accountability whatsoever.