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Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A. Polite, Jr. Delivers Remarks at the Africa Regional Colloquium



Remarks as Prepared for Delivery

Honorable Chief Justice Koome, Director Haji, Deputy Chief of Mission Dillard, your excellencies, and valued partners: Good morning. On behalf of United States Attorney General Merrick Garland and the United States Department of Justice, I want to first thank our Kenyan partners for hosting this important colloquium. The United States has had a long and cherished relationship with our friends here in Kenya. Thank you. 

I also want to thank the United Nations for providing this outstanding venue, and for their collaboration along with that of European Union, the British High Commission, and our other international partners on this initiative. 

I am grateful for the work of our Department of Justice team assembled here, especially those of you stationed here on the continent. We are so proud of the work you do in collaboration with our many African partners, and with the wider international community.

I want to express my special appreciation to Ambassador Whitman, and our State Department colleagues – especially our Embassies – for their partnership with the Department of Justice, and their hospitality, leadership, and support on these critically important issues. And my particular thanks to the State Department’s Bureau of International Law Enforcement Affairs and its Bureau of Counterterrorism for their support of our programs in Africa.

I am honored to be with you this morning as part of this event and to greet so many of our esteemed justice sector partners and colleagues. I am particularly honored to be the first U.S. Department of Justice Assistant Attorney General of the Criminal Division to visit the African continent in over a decade, and the first to specifically visit Kenya in this century.

As criminal justice leaders and practitioners, we share a certain kinship; a kinship rooted in professionalism, public service, and a shared responsibility to the rule of law. We know too well the many challenges all our criminal justice systems face. We are given the awesome responsibility to keep our citizens safe, to combat crimes old and new, to pursue justice, and to ensure transparency, fairness, and efficiency in systems of that oftentimes were designed in different eras. These are no small tasks. 

Yet we can succeed in these tasks only by working together. Close communication and coordination among our criminal justice sectors is critical to fighting crime in a globalized world. Events like this week’s provide us opportunities to learn from each other, consider new approaches, and reaffirm our shared commitment to advancing the rule of law. These opportunities reinvigorate us, equip us with more tools, and build closer partnerships to help overcome shared challenges and meet our responsibilities to our citizens and the international community.

The U.S. Department of Justice is grateful for our many partnerships in Africa. Together, we have tackled some of the most challenging criminal justice problems facing the international community: from terrorism, sea piracy, and transnational organized crime to cybercrime, narcotics and wildlife trafficking. In the process, we have learned from each other, helping each other pursue not only individual criminal investigations but also improving upon our own systems. This colloquium provides us all with another opportunity to learn and grow together.

Our joint mission has never been more important. Modern technology has opened unprecedented channels of international trade and communication. These groundbreaking innovations spread the promise of health, prosperity, and security.

But this progress also brings new challenges. The same advances have given bad actors fresh avenues to exploit weaknesses, destabilize communities, and pursue criminal ends. Violent ideologies can proliferate and spread across multiple continents; threats are no longer contained by borders and oceans; and adversaries are as likely to be found in cyberspace as on the streets or the battlefield. Today, more than ever before, the security of the citizens of each state increasingly depends on the security of the citizens in all states – and we in the justice sector must therefore supplement national vigilance with international cooperation.

As we combat these new threats, all of our countries continue to face the inherent and age-old challenges of ensuring that our justice systems properly balance concerns for public safety with concerns for human rights, accountability, fairness, and the orderly and timely administration of justice. Nowhere is this balancing put more to the test than when our criminal justice systems must decide whether it is necessary and appropriate to detain our citizens pretrial. 

As noted in the preamble for this colloquium, where that balance is lost, an overreliance on pretrial detention not only risks violations of individual rights on a large scale, but can result in prison overcrowding, clogged dockets, overburdened justice personnel, depletion of government resources, and exposure of defendants to criminal and violent extremist ideologies while detained. All of this can culminate in the loss of our citizens’ respect for our justice systems and by extension, the rule of law.

As important as it is for us to continue to work together to hone our abilities to combat specific criminal threats, we must also share experiences and best practices that encourage our systems to meet this balance, including by avoiding overreliance on pretrial detention. There is consensus that deprivation of citizens’ liberty should be a measure of last resort, after proper consideration of non-custodial measures. But the potential overuse and excessive length of pretrial detention remain challenges that our justice systems need to continually assess and address.

This colloquium brings together leaders from across Africa to address pretrial detention reform – what has been done, what is being done, and what can be done. Your participation reflects your concern and commitment to these important issues.

As this colloquium seeks to emphasize, each of us – as leaders and practitioners, as law enforcement, prosecutors, defense counsel, judges, and corrections officials – each of us has an important role to play. We must be vigilant in ensuring that our personnel, institutions, and systems do not resort to detention when appropriate alternatives can be found. And we should explore whether relevant policies and procedures should be modified, whether new tools should be adopted, and whether new modalities should be implemented that could help us achieve balancing the scales of justice. 

In Kenya and Ghana, we have seen the substantial impacts of reform efforts, significantly furthered by the professional exchanges coordinated and supported by the Department of Justice. As we meet this week, we stand ready to share these experiences – as well as our own experiences within the United States – with you not only today, but in the future, and to join with you in your consideration how to best implement reforms in your respective countries – and to consider what lessons we ourselves can take away.

My hope is that our discussions here will be the impetus for greater pretrial detention reforms, which opportunities for dialogues to follow up on the concepts and themes discussed this week.

It is inspiring to see the agenda for this colloquium, and to learn about the innovation and initiatives taking place in so many countries. It is especially heartening to see so many fellow justice sector colleagues assembled here to explore this important topic. I look forward to personally meeting you all and learning about the results of this collaboration. 

[In Swahili]: Sisi ni ndugu na dada, sote tunatetea haki.

[In English]: We are brothers and sisters, all seeking justice.

On behalf of the entire United States Department of Justice, I thank you again for your partnership. I wish you a productive week, and look forward to all that we will continue to achieve together.

Updated May 16, 2023