Alice Wairimu Nderitu, recently appointed special adviser on the prevention of genocide to the United Nations secretary general, spoke to Binghamton University students and faculty about the importance of education in atrocity prevention.
Nderitu’s foray into genocide and atrocity prevention began in her home country of Kenya, where Nderitu grew up surrounded by violence and an absence of human rights.
“I came into the space of atrocity prevention initially from human rights to peace-building and then atrocity prevention, and then I saw [all of them] as interconnected,” Nderitu said. “Starting with human rights, that’s where I gained a very sharp awareness of how people were living in my country, Kenya. I worked for the human rights commission, and I was in charge of the human rights education department. My work involved a lot of travel around the country, and I was able to see the disparities, the inequalities. My sense grew that I needed to do something about it.”
Growing up, Nderitu said her parents raised her with a strong sense of justice and doing what’s right. During her early years working in Kenya, Nderitu said widespread acceptance of human rights had not yet bled into the country’s culture and government. In order to facilitate the acceptance of human rights in her country, Nderitu said it was necessary to work with the perpetrators of violence, even though it may seem counterintuitive at first.
“From the human rights perspective, it is incredibly difficult to work with perpetrators of violence, but, in peace-building, those are the people you need to discuss peace,” Nderitu said. “In their hands they hold peace, and they hold war. In peace-building I learned that you have to identify the person with the highest capacity to cause violence because that is the person that you then need to speak with.”
In 2005, during her time on the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, Nderitu focused on preventing electoral violence. In late 2007 and early 2008, Nderitu said the power of politicians to “hijack an identity narrative” ultimately led to violence and invalidated their efforts.
In 2013, however, the assistance of other African leaders allowed for a peaceful electoral process, which was facilitated by the creation of a variety of commissions regarding elections in Kenya. Nderitu was a commissioner for the National Cohesion and Integration Commission. As a member of this commission, Nderitu was directly involved in implementing rules and helping different ethnic groups come to agreements.
“I was haunted because each time we went out to the field, as the National Cohesion and Integration Commission, and when I’m talking about the field I’m talking about a Kenya field that had been so devastated by violence then, I kept hearing people say, ‘We knew the violence was going to come, but we did not know who to tell,’” Nderitu said. “I began to think to myself that really ensuring people know who to tell must then become a very key reason why I am working.”
Through the National Cohesion and Integration Commission, Nderitu and her colleagues helped create the Uwiano Platform for Peace. Through this program, the Commission bought and distributed many cell phones and set up a number that citizens could call to give information about what was happening in their area, something that Nderitu said was indispensable in a country without an emergency response system like 911. This allowed Nderitu and her colleagues to assess the risks in each region of Kenya and analyze relationships between different ethnic groups, which is what ultimately ensured a peaceful election in the following years.
Regarding her experience as a woman in a field often dominated by men, Nderitu said that while it is difficult to be a woman in some contexts, she was still able to help groups come to understandings because of her proficiency in peace-building.
“When people have problems, when people have reached that space of stalemate, in many cases what people need is not a man or a woman — what they need is a person with skills,” Nderitu said.
Nderitu added that women are critical to peace-building and often bring up issues that have previously been neglected, such as food security, how to get access to water and other humanitarian issues that are looked over in favor of more violent or extreme options.
“Women tend to broaden the set of issues addressed in negotiations beyond military action, power and wealth sharing, and, in that sense, they address the underlying drivers of conflict,” Nderitu said.
Nderitu mentioned that one of the most important tools in order to make peace agreements work is the involvement of ethnic leaders. According to Nderitu, many peace agreements use the same “copy and paste” language across different cultural contexts, which weakens the agreements. She said that in her time working with indigenous communities, the presence of cultural agreements alongside legal agreements have been necessary in order to maintain peace.
Moving forward as the special adviser on the prevention of genocide, Nderitu said the lessons she has learned at the national level will help her on a global scale. One of her main priorities will be strengthening the effectiveness of grassroots community organizations as well as helping develop networks between communities.
Nderitu also stressed the importance of research regarding what the factors that lead to atrocities are and how a lack of said research has been a large contributor to the continuance of violence in many areas. Once this research is completed, Nderitu hopes to use the knowledge that is found to develop policy that can help countries in need.
While Nderitu mentioned the many aspects of atrocity prevention during her talk, she said that its core, her job revolved around one simple message.
“At the basis of it all, the foundation is really to prevent the loss of human life,” Nderitu said.