As the New York Times reported on June 30, three Kenyan men — Willie Kimani, Josephat Mwenda, and Joseph Muiruri — walked out of a Kenyan courthouse on June 23rd and were abducted. A week later they were found dead in a river.
They had gone to court that morning to pursue Mwenda’s case against local police, who had been harassing him. Police abuse, harassment, and impunity are facts of life in Kenya, and yet, Mwenda chose to take on a system that does not function for the people, but rather for its own self-preservation. He was accompanied by Kimani, an investigator for International Justice Mission, a global organization that works to protect the poor from violence around the world by bringing rescue, restoring survivors, ensuring convictions, and building capacity in broken public justice systems. Muiruri was their driver.
Their abduction immediately sounded alarms throughout Nairobi and Washington, where active human rights communities knew all too well how this story would unfold. Those who dare to challenge police abuse face an unrelenting, self-protecting system of impunity. The fact that Kimani worked for an internationally known justice organization made the abduction even more surprising and brazen on the part of those that sought to silence voices that challenged the police. The perpetrators likely assumed that the murders — gruesome details notwithstanding — would be the end of the story. But the story did not and does not end here. The #justiceinkenya movement, dedicated to finding the missing men quickly, gained traction following their abduction, and has garnered international attention, which has put pressure on the Kenyan government to challenge police corruption and to hold accountable those who perpetrated these crimes.
Some will hear this story and shake their heads, lamenting the unfortunate reality for those in developing countries but accepting that this reality is unchangeable, and truthfully, not that relevant. But the story of these men is not an isolated circumstance to be overlooked; it is a reflection of a foundational, systemic failure that undermines global economic development, security, and the very nature of the nation-state.
The abuse these men faced at the hands of police occurs on a daily basis around the world, and especially in Kenya. People are subjected to extortion, false arrest, abuse, and even murder. And those who are the victims of crimes have little hope of justice in a country that lacks accountability for police and other public servants. The poor, who lack access to the workaround structures that the rich build in such societies, are the most vulnerable and exploited. Their chances of finding security or escaping a life of poverty are slim at best.
Some may say that this is simply an unfortunate reality in poorer countries, or that corruption and dealing with unaccountable leaders are simply costs of doing business globally. Or some will argue that there are bigger problems in the world than police corruption or abuse.
Addressing failing juridical systems is, in fact, a crucial component of solving many of the problems in the world today. Take, for example, the tremendous efforts being made to alleviate poverty around the world. These efforts butt up against the reality that police can confiscate property or assets, arrest the poor at random, or extort bribes from those whom the international community is working fervently to pull out of poverty. Likewise, supporting or turning a blind eye to corrupt officials who we count on to combat criminal and terrorist networks undermines the fabric of societies that the international community hopes to support. Also, as the international community seeks to fortify failing or weak states through countless governance and institutional support measures, the existence of abusive and unaccountable police stands in direct contravention to these efforts. States — and their international supporters — that allow police abuse and corruption to continue will eventually in so doing destroy the function of state institutions, sow the seeds of civil discontent, and enable the decay of the fabric of societies. And if states start to crumble, a myriad of other social, political, and security problems follow soon thereafter.
So as the families of Kimani, Mwenda, and Muiruri mourn the senseless loss of three innocent men, the international community should draw a larger lesson. When we turn a blind eye to police corruption or abuse, we undermine many of our broader goals, along with the very stability and social development that we hope to promote.
A first step is to show that the case of these three men will not go unresolved. Efforts are underway — particularly through JusticeInKenya.org — to pressure the Kenyan government do what governments are charged with doing: namely prosecuting crimes fairly to ensure justice for citizens. All voices should join in the effort to force the government to do what is right.
And more broadly, each state and member of the international community should vow to integrate into its international efforts a pledge to challenge any police abuse or corruption it encounters.
Let us remember the work that Willie did daily as a reminder of the work that the international community must take on, not only to win the battle that Willie fought, but also to win the war for many others to come.