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A Jigsaw Puzzle or a Map? The Role of Treaties under Kenya's Constitution

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  27 November 2017

Archibold Ombongi Nyarango*
Gumbo and Company Advocates


Kenya's 2010 Constitution marks the first time that treaty law has been constitutionally declared part of Kenya's domestic law. However, the laconic drafting of the relevant provision leaves unanswered questions about the role of treaties. This article seeks to answer some of those questions, addresses conflicts between treaties and other laws, and concludes that treaties can be directly enforceable in domestic law unless they are expressly non-self-executing. Furthermore, domestic courts must apply treaties in accordance with the constitution, although the article also addresses the problems that this causes with article 103 of the UN Charter and the East African Community Treaty. Treaties that are applied directly domestically should be considered at a par with statutes enacted by the national Parliament and prevail over county laws. Human rights treaties should carry greater weight than conflicting statutes. Where a treaty is implemented into domestic legislation, the “parent” treaty should prevail where there is a conflict.

Research Article
Copyright © SOAS, University of London 2017 

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LLB (hons), LLM (international law), advocate of the High Court of Kenya. Consultant, Gumbo and Company Advocates, Nairobi, Kenya.


1 Some writers use the term “translation” to describe the process of legislating non-self-executing treaties into domestic law. Others label it “transformation”. The terms appear interchangeable. See Devine, DJThe relationship between international law and municipal law in the light of the interim South African Constitution 1993” (1995) 44 International & Comparative Law Quarterly 1CrossRefGoogle Scholar at 5 and Shaw, M International Law (5th ed, 2003, Cambridge University Press)CrossRefGoogle Scholar at 121.

2 Damrosch, LF and Murphy, SD International Law: Cases and Materials (6th ed, 2013, West Academic Publishing)Google Scholar at 621.

3 Ibid; Aust, A Handbook of International Law (2005, Cambridge University Press) at 8081CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4 Verdier, PH and Versteeg, MModes of domestic incorporation of international law” in Sandholtz, W and Whytock, CA (eds) Research Handbook on the Politics of International Law (2017, Edward Elgar) 149CrossRefGoogle Scholar at 172.

5 Dudziak, MLWorking toward democracy: Thurgood Marshall and the Constitution of Kenya” (2006) 56 Duke Law Journal 721Google Scholar at 758; Minister of Home Affairs (Bermuda) and Another v Fisher and Another (1980) AC 319 at 328–29, 2 All ER 21 (PC) at 25h–26e; ICCPR Human Rights Committee Third Periodic Reports of State Parties: Kenya (2010) CCPR/C/KEN/3, para 30.

6 RM and Another v Attorney General [2006] eKLR; Rono v Rono (2008) 1 KLR (G & F) 803.

7 Rono, ibid.

8 Ibid.

9 Ibid.

10 RM, above at note 6, Rono, ibid, both citing the Zambian case of Sara Longwe (1993) 4 LRC 221. Ahmed and Others v Republic criminal appeal 198, 199, 200, 201, 202, 203, 204, 205, 206 and 207 of 2008 [2010] eKLR at 8 and 9.

11 RM, ibid.

12 Okunda v Republic 9 ILM 556 (1970) (Kenya); [1970] EALR 453.

13 In the Matter of an Application by Evan Maina misc case no 7/1969.

14 See further discussion of the cases in Oppong, RFRe-imagining international law: An examination of recent trends in the reception of international law into national legal systems of Africa” (2006) 30 Fordham International Law Journal 296Google Scholar at 300–05.

15 EAC Treaty, art 8(4).

16 Njoya and Others v Attorney General and Others (2004) AHRLR 157 (KeHC 2004), para 29.

17 Above at note 6.

18 One of the drafts preceding the current constitution, rejected in a referendum in 2005.

19 Constitution of Kenya Review Commission Final Report of the Constitution of Kenya Review Commission (2005) at 46, 151 and 153.

20 Walter Osapiri Barasa v Cabinet Secretary, Ministry of Interior and National Coordination and Six Others [2014] eKLR.

21 Id, para 50.

22 In Re Zipporah Mathara [2010] eKLR.

23 Mukazitoni Josephine v Attorney General Republic Of Kenya [2015] eKLR.

24 Geofroy v Riggs (1890) 133 US 255 at 267.

25 2010 Constitution, art 2(6).

26 Walter Osapiri Barasa, above at note 20, paras 49 and 59, citing Beatrice Wanjiku and Another v the Attorney General and Others and Beatrice Wanjiku and Another v Attorney General and Another (2012) eKLR with approval.

27 TRA 2012, sec 6(1).

28 Id, sec 7(b).

29 T Bulto “The Monist-dualist divide and the supremacy clause: Revisiting the status of human rights treaties in Ethiopia” (2009) 23/1 Journal of Ethiopian Law 132 at 135–36 and 148–49; see also Spiro, PTreaties, international law and constitutional rights” (2003) 55 Stanford Law ReviewGoogle Scholar 1999 at 2001.

30 Lauterpacht, H International Law and Human Rights (1950, FA Praeger)Google Scholar at 70.

31 Undurraga, V and Cook, RJConstitutional incorporation of international and comparative human rights law: The Colombian Constitutional Court decision C-355/2006” in Williams, S (ed) Constituting Equality: Gender Equality and Constitutional Law (2009, Cambridge University Press) 215CrossRefGoogle Scholar at 226–27.

32 Colombian Constitutional Court Decision C355/2006, cited in Undurraga and Cook “Constitutional incorporation”, id at 229.

33 H Kelsen Principles of International Law (1952, Rinehart and Co, Inc) at 108.

34 Advisory Opinion on Customs Regime Between Germany and Austria (1931) PCIJ series A/B, no 41, individual opinion by D Anzilotti at 24 (emphasis added).

35 Kelsen Principles of International Law, above at note 33 at 113–14.

36 Id at 108.

37 Id at 112.

38 2010 Constitution, art 1(1).

39 TRA 2012, sec 3(3).

40 2010 Constitution, art 94(2).

41 TRA 2012, sec 6(1).

42 Id, sec 7(b).

43 Undurraga and Cook “Constitutional incorporation”, above at note 31 at 230–31.

44 Khanna v Attorney General and Others [2010] eKLR, per Warsame J at 1.

45 Devine “The relationship between”, above at note 1 at 10.

46 Nyong'o and Ten Others v Attorney General and Others (2008) 2 KLR (EP) 397 at 430.

47 Establishment of the East African Community Act 2000, sec 8(1).

48 Oppong “Re-imagining international law”, above at note 14 at 305.

49 Above at note 12.

50 2010 Constitution, art 2(1) and (3).

51 Oppong “Re-imagining international law”, above at note 14 at 304.

52 Verdier and Versteeg “Modes of domestic incorporation”, above at note 4 at 7.

53 Dugard, JInternational law and the South African Constitution” (1997) 1 European Journal of International Law 77CrossRefGoogle Scholar at 77. See also Nollkaemper, AThe effect of treaties in domestic law” in Tams, CJ, Tzanakopoulos, A, Zimmerman, A and Richford, A (eds) Research Handbook on the Law of Treaties (2014, Edward Elgar) 123Google Scholar at 139.

54 Dugard, ibid.

55 The Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development v The Southern African Litigation Centre (867/15) [2016] ZASCA 17 (15 March 2016), para 63.

56 2010 Constitution, art 143(4).

57 Dugard “International law”, above at note 53 at 81.

58 Devine “The relationship between”, above at note 1 at 10.

59 de Mestral, A and Fox-Decent, ERethinking the relationship between international and domestic law” (2008) 53 McGill Law Journal 573Google Scholar at 580, citing Constitutional Court decisions including BVerfG [Federal Constitutional Court] 29 May 1974, 2 BvL 52/71. For a recent case see BVerfG 18 March 2014, docket number 2 BvR 1390/12 (Ger).

60 For example, Basic Law, art 24(1) on the transfer of sovereign powers to international bodies and art 25 on the primacy of international law.

61 Decision of 15 December 2015, 2 BvL 1/12.

62 2010 Constitution, art 165(3)(d)(i).

63 McGimpsey and Another v Ireland and Others [1990] ILRM 441.

64 Francioni, FInternational law as a common language for national courts” (2001) 36 Texas International Law Journal 587Google Scholar at 590.

65 Senegal Constitution, art 97.

66 2010 Constitution, art 2(4).

67 See the Ghai Draft, art 5(1)(g) under which “customary international law … applicable in Kenya” formed a source of Kenyan law.

68 Bomas Draft, art 3A(g): “The laws of Kenya comprise this Constitution and each of the following to the extent that it is consistent with this Constitution … customary international law, and international agreements, applicable to Kenya.”

69 PNC Draft, art 3(g): “The laws of Kenya comprise this Constitution and each of the following laws to the extent that it is consistent with this Constitution … customary international law, and international agreements applicable to Kenya.”

70 Akehurst, MThe hierarchy of sources of international law” (1975) 47/1 British Yearbook of International Law 273CrossRefGoogle Scholar at 274.

71 ILC Conclusions of the Work of the Study Group on the Fragmentation of International Law: Difficulties Arising from the Diversification and Expansion of International Law (2006, UN).

72 See Akehurst “The hierarchy of sources”, above at note 70, for a comprehensive study of rules of conflict resolution and hierarchy in international law.

73 ILC Conclusions of the Work, above at note 71, para 4.

74 Id, para 5.

75 Akehurst “The hierarchy of sources”, above at note 70.

76 ILC Conclusions of the Work, above at note 71, paras 24–25.

77 Jones v Saudi Arabia [2006] UKHL 26, para 66 per Lord Hoffman: “But the same approach cannot be adopted in international law, which is based upon the common consent of nations. It is not for a national court to ‘develop’ international law by unilaterally adopting a version of that law which, however desirable, forward-looking and reflective of values it may be, is simply not accepted by other states.”

78 Beatrice Wanjiku and Another v Attorney General and Another (2012) eKLR.

79 Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, art 231(4).

80 Constitution of Namibia, art 144.

81 See Gathii, JKenya's piracy prosecutions” (2010) 104 American Journal of International Law 416CrossRefGoogle Scholar at 419, citing In re Sugar Act 2001 (no 10 of 2001), ex parte Mat International Ltd misc civil appeal no 192 of 2004 [2004] eKLR at 12 (High Ct). Similarly, Juma Ganzori v Commissioner General Kenya Revenue Authority appeal no 60 of 2006.

82 Above at note 22.

83 David Macharia v Republic criminal appeal 497 of 2007.

84 RPM v PKM (2011) eKLR; Beatrice Wanjiku, above at note 78.

85 TRA 2012, sec 3(4).

86 See para 21.

87 TRA 2012, secs 7(m) and 8(3).

88 Verdier and Versteeg “Modes of domestic incorporation”, above at note 4 at 9.

89 Above at note 20, para 65.

90 Per Lord Hoffman in Jones v Saudi Arabia, above at note 77, para 63.

91 Above at note 6.

92 For example, art 20(3)(b): “In applying a provision of the Bill of Rights, a court shall … adopt the interpretation that most favours the enforcement of a right or fundamental freedom.”

93 UN Charter, art 93.

94 Oppong “Re-imagining international law”, above at note 14 at 318.

95 RM, above at note 6.

96 David Njoroge Macharia v Republic criminal appeal 497 of 2007 at 11, citing Advocats Sans Frontières (on behalf of Bwampamye) v Burundi, African commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights comm no 231/00 (2000) and also citing Prosecution v Sam Hinga Norman, Moinina Fofanah and Alieu Kondowa case no SCSL-04-14-T (CDF).

97 Andrew Omtata Okoiti and Others v Attorney General and Others constitutional petition 3 of 2010 IICDRC [2010] eKLR; Zipporah Mathara, above at note 22; David Macharia v Rep criminal appeal 497 of 2007.

98 Gathungu v Attorney General and Others (2010) eKLR.

99 Nyong'o, above at note 46 at 415.

100 Kibua, TN and Tostensen, A Fast Tracking East African Integration: Assessing the Feasibility of a Political Federation by 2010 (2005, CMI Reports)Google Scholar at 3–4.

101 Centre for Minority Rights Development (Kenya) and Minority Rights Group International on behalf of Endorois Welfare Council v Kenya comm no 276/2003.

102 African Commission v Republic of Kenya appln no 006/2012, judgment of May 2017, para 5.

103 Id, para 227.

104 AL Young “Whose convention rights are they anyway?” (12 February 2012), available at: <> (last accessed 10 September 2017).

105 See for example Gathungu, above at note 98, challenging the constitutionality of ICC investigations within Kenya.

106 Ibid.

107 Nollkaemper “The effect of treaties”, above at note 53 at 123.

108 Per the separate opinion of Judge Chile Eboe-Osuji in Decision on Defence Applications for Judgment of Acquittal no ICC-01/09-01/11 (5 April 2016), para 142 (emphasis added).

109 Nollkaemper “The effect of treaties”, above at note 53 at 127.

110 Id at 127 and 129.

111 TRA 2012, sec 7(i).

112 de Mestral and Fox-Decent “Rethinking the relationship”, above at note 59 at 644.

113 Nollkaemper “The effect of treaties”, above at note 53 at 129.

114 Established 22 October 2010.

115 Taskforce on Devolved Government Final Report of the Taskforce on Devolved Government (2012) vol 1 at 82.

116 2010 Constitution, art 163(6). See also the Kenyan Supreme Court case In Re The Matter of The Interim Independent Electoral Commission constitutional appln 2 of 2011, para 40, stating that the phrase “any matter concerning county government” incorporates any national-level process bearing a significant impact on the conduct of county government.

117 Taskforce on Devolved Government Final Report, above at note 115 at 25.

118 2010 Constitution, art 187(1).

119 Id, art 187(2)(b).

120 See id, 4th sched.

121 This objective reads: “The State shall be guided by the principle of decentralisation and devolution of governmental functions and powers to the people at appropriate levels where they can best manage and direct their own affairs.”

122 Uganda Local Governments Act 1997, sec 175(2).

123 A de Mestral and E Fox-Decent “Rethinking the relationship”, above at note 59 at 594.

124 2010 Constitution, art 96(1).

125 Id, art 163(6).

126 Okenyo Omwansa George and Another v Attorney General and Two others [2012] eKLR.

127 See also the UN Charter.

128 “In pursuance of the provisions of paragraph 4 of this Article, the Partner States undertake to make the necessary legal instruments to confer precedence of Community organs, institutions and laws over similar national ones.”

129 Cassese, A International Law (2001, Oxford University Press)Google Scholar at 167.

130 Nollkaemper “The effect of treaties”, above at note 53 at 144.

131 Kenya Section of the International Commission of Jurists and Others v Attorney General and Others misc criminal appln 685 of 2010 [2011] eKLR at 17, per Ombija J: “I subscribe to the view that the Rome Statute obligations are in any case customary international law which a State cannot contravene.” While many of the provisions of the Rome Statute reflect customary international law, it is not the case that the treaty itself is now part of customary international law.

132 ILC Conclusions of the Work, above at note 71.

133 Peters, ASupremacy lost: International law meets domestic constitutional law” (2009) 3 Vienna Journal of International Constitutional Law 170Google Scholar at 197.

134 Malanczuk, P (ed) Akehurst's Modern Introduction to International Law (7th ed, 1997, Routledge)Google Scholar at 66.

135 Id at 63.