Mark Pursey is the founder and Managing Partner of BTP Advisers.
Late last year, unnoticed in Parliament or by Fleet Street, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office made an important policy change that stands to significantly improve Britain’s relations with Africa: it agreed to allow British military personnel accused of crimes committed in Kenya when off duty to be tried in Kenyan Courts.
At first glance this may seem insignificant, yet the decision has major geopolitical implications. At a stroke it begins to smooth Britain’s complicated diplomatic relations with world’s fastest growing continent. But as a consequence it deals a blow to the International Criminal Court, the world’s first permanent global justice tribunal that UK has long championed, but which has been to the detriment of that partnership. The Kenya decision reveals the FCO is turning away from the unworldly and moralistic foreign policy championed by Tony Blair and continued under the Coalition – of which the ICC is a prime example – to a more tactical, hard-nosed approach. Labour’s desire to save the world through global justice for all is being replaced by what is good for Britain.
While few in the UK may know it, the Government maintains a large military base in Kenya. A critical launch pad for activities in Afghanistan as well as Africa, it maintains Britain’s ability to project military power globally, as well as a preparation ground for combat in unfamiliar terrain. Some ten thousand UK personnel train there each year.
But it is what is happening beyond the base that is more important: Africa is fast becoming a front in a new “Great Game” between West and East. Long a premier economic, military and cultural force in Africa, the UK has been close to slipping down the league as China has made its play and America and France have re-engaged with increased investment and military resources.
With the lease up for renewal and in 2016 David Cameron set to be the first British Prime Minister ever to officially visit Kenya, the FCO has been tasked with ensuring the base’s extension, and rebuilding good relations with an old partner. This was achieved on 9th December, but at a price. The Kenyan government extracted a concession that British soldiers accused of committing crimes locally – and over the years some have – will be tried locally, a request the FCO has for years opposed. Currently personnel are flown back to the UK, with matters addressed there by military authorities.
But far from a capitulation, this decision is astute. By confirming Kenyan authorities and local justice institutions are sufficiently robust to handle sensitive legal matters, the FCO has acknowledged Kenya as an equal partner. This is something Kenyan politicians have long desired – and deserved. But in doing so the FCO has also helped the country they serve: by relieving Kenyan politicians of one way to accuse Britain of meddling in their sovereign affairs, something that has long been a feature of that country’s politics.
The decision also sends a more indirect, but far more powerful, message: that is, if Kenya is capable of trying British military personnel, then, surely, it must also be capable of trying Kenyans accused of serious crimes.
The potency of this message should not be underestimated both for Kenya and for Africa, not least when the current Deputy President of Kenya William Ruto is on trial at the International Criminal Court at The Hague in Holland, of which Britain is a leading funder. Accused of involvement in post-election violence in the 2007-8, Ruto’s case rides on witnesses that were sourced by Kenyan NGOs in receipt of funding from DFID and other Western government aid agencies; the UK has directly funded the witness re-allocation scheme, specifically for the Ruto case and previously for other, related cases from Kenya that have now collapsed – including one against the country’s current President Uhuru Kenyatta.
When the Kenyan cases were transferred to The Hague in 2010, the Coalition Government supported the move, suggesting that justice could not be served where local courts were too susceptible to influence by the powerful. But why should a trial in Holland still be necessary when one of the ICC’s leading funders has confirmed the suitability of local courts to handle cases against its own citizens? With this implicit acknowledgement the current Government is peeling back total support for the ICC in favour of improved relations with Africa.
This commitment came with good intentions, but unswerving backing for the ICC has been a geopolitical nightmare – depleting goodwill with allies across Africa at the very time other countries are making their play for influence. At the heart of this challenge has been the fact that, for its 12-year existence, all of the ICC’s cases have been from Africa. This criticism is unfair: other, temporary international tribunals such as those for former Yugoslavia and Lebanon also based at The Hague ensure crimes from other countries are being addressed. Yet still it has empowered African leaders to paint the ICC as a post-colonial tool of influence for European powers, something hardly dispelled by Britain’s financial involvement in the Kenyan cases.
It would now appear the FCO wants this to change. It cannot be an accident that it was the new British High Commissioner to Kenya, Nic Hailey – only in his second day in post – that signed the military personnel agreement. Hailey has great responsibility, and it is no surprise the FCO sent someone as senior as its former Director for Africa to take up the role. That alone shows how seriously the British Government is taking efforts to re-build bridges and recalibrate its relations with the continent.
When Africa, long overlooked, is now so important as an engine of global economic growth for British companies, it would seem the FCO has decided it will not allow matters of politics, or courts in Holland, to stand in the way. With this decision, far from being a “Ministry for foreigners” they were accused of being under Labour, the FCO are demonstrating that in Africa they are fully focused on putting Britain’s geopolitical interests first.