A top UN official, who missed a high profile meeting in Brazil after he was stopped from boarding a plane, has looped Royal Dutch Airline KLM in a legal duel that is expected to define the boundaries of discrimination at airports.
Bakari Kante, the director of the Division of Environmental Law and Conventions at the Nairobi-based United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), has accused the airline of unfair treatment and discrimination on grounds of race and religion at the departure gate of Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.
KLM officials denied Mr Kante entry to the passenger lounge even after he passed through all the airport security checks and Kenyan immigration officials cleared him for the flight.
The Senegalese national, who carries a diplomatic passport, was blocked at the gate after KLM security officials cast doubts on the validity of his visa to Brazil even as they allowed his special assistant, an Austrian, whose visa was processed together with Mr Kante’s to board the plane.
Through his lawyers, Murgor and Murgor, Mr Kante, who was forced to abandon his journey, is demanding “an unreserved public apology and admission of liability” from the airline in a suit that is expected to interrogate some of the procedures airlines and airports have put in place in the wake of international terrorism.
In a letter to Mr Peter Hartman, the president and chief executive of KLM, Mr Kante’s lawyer, Philip Murgor, says the airline’s treatment of Mr Kante amounted to discrimination based on religious and racial profiling.
“Our client is not only appalled by the blatant discrimination on grounds of race and religion, and the unprofessional conduct against him, but is also dismayed by your open bias against non-EU and non-US citizens,” says the letter dated April 20.
Citizens of the EU and US queue separately at KLM’s departure gates. KLM’s lawyers Hamilton Harrison & Mathew have acknowledged receiving Mr Kante’s demand and have asked his lawyers to “hold further action while we seek instructions,” adding that the letter does not amount to an admission of liability.
KLM airline operates daily flights to Nairobi and owns 26 per cent of the national carrier Kenya Airways, whose chief executive Titus Naikuni has been copied in the communication.
KLM uses Amsterdam as a hub from where it flies passengers and cargo to the rest of the world.
The drama that culminated in the suit played out at JKIA’s international terminal where a KLM official denied Mr Kante, a Muslim, access to the boarding gate despite his red UN Laissez Passer (UNPL), which is similar to a diplomatic passport.
His special assistant Arnold Kreilhuber, an Austrian, holding a Blue UNPL, was permitted to board the flight even though he says the KLM security officer did not look at his visa.
The KLM official told Mr Kante that he could not board the plane without direct communication with the Brazilian embassy regarding the validity of the visa – despite clear knowledge that it was late in the evening and the embassy was closed.
“My client was then asked to show his Senegalese passport, after a brief meeting with the head of the crew but one of the airline’s officials totally refused to permit his entry, causing his luggage to be offloaded,” Mr Murgor says in the letter.
“The assumption made by yourselves, and your staff, is that because our client is Senegalese national, and a Muslim, then he is likely to be a security risk, and in possession of a fraudulent or fake Brazilian visa. This is informed by the favourable treatment accorded to our client’s special assistant, just because he has a Christian name, is of Caucasian origin, and is a national of an EU member country… and need not be subjected to the same scrutiny as our client.”
The Brazilian Embassy has since confirmed authenticity of the visa that allowed Mr Kante to travel to Rio de Janeiro for a meeting to prepare for the World congress on Justice, Governance and Law for Environmental Sustainability in June.
The event is expected to bring together chief justices, Attorneys General and Audirots General from across the world.
Mr Murgor reckons that the “unlawful profiling” of Mr Kante contravenes the UN International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) and the EU Convention on Human Rights.
The conventions aim to combat racial and religious intolerance.
Racial and religious profiling at airports has become a major global issue where travellers undergo routine searches and profiling before boarding planes.
The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the US and continuous security threats have led many airlines and airports down the path of singling out certain individuals for extensive searches.
Security officers in the US and EU have particularly struggled to find a balance between beefing up security and upholding the rights of individuals.