OSISA urges ACHPR to tackle police abuses

Commission must rein in SADC security forces

Richard Lee's picture


Strategic communications for WWF

April 10th, 2013

The increasingly violent and abusive behaviour of security services in southern Africa was highlighted at the on Human and Peoples' Rights (ACHPR) on Wednesday when the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA) gave its oral presentation at the institution's 53rd ordinary session.

In its official submission, OSISA expressed its concern about the fact that "some state security services (police, intelligence and other paramilitary forces) in southern Africa are routinely abusing their powers and violating citizens’ rights. There has been an increase in the brutality of state security services across the region, including the use of excessive lethal force against unarmed civilians, the violent dispersal of legitimate public demonstrations, and the unlawful arrest and illegal detention of citizens – some of whom have died in police custody."

The institution then highlighted a number of recent examples including in Angola where eighteen young Angolans were rounded up, beaten and arrested by security forces in March for trying to stage a peaceful demonstration, which was intended to raise public awareness about the kidnapping and disappearance of Alves Kamulingue and Isaias Kassule, who vanished a year ago in the wake of another demonstration that was thwarted by the security forces. 

During the same month in Mozambique, the leader of the association for ex-combatants, Herminio Morais, was reportedly kidnapped and tortured by security officials after the association’s members staged several public demonstrations calling for an increase in their military retirement pensions, while a taxi driver, Alfredo Tivane, was shot dead by a policeman, purportedly for failing to obey an instruction by a police officer.

Meanwhile, across the border in Swaziland, a battalion of armed police invaded the Our Lady of Assumption Cathedral in Manzini in February and forced the congregation to vacate the church alleging that the service ‘intended to sabotage the country’s general elections’. A month later, a heavily armed group of police backed up by the Operational Support Services Unit prevented members of the Trade Union Congress of Swaziland from holding a peaceful commemoration prayer in celebration of the federation’s anniversary. In both instances there was no court order giving the police the legal authority to halt the prayers.

OSISA also pointed to an increase in institutional violence in Lesotho, where seven suspected criminals died at the hands of the police between December 2012 and February 2013. Meanwhile, in Zimbabwe, a renowned human rights activist and lawyer, Beatrice Mtetwa, was arrested - and unlawfully detained for over a week - for allegedly obstructing the course of justice. This case follows a litany of similar cases, which have previously been reported to the Commission about the abuse of power and the brutality perpetrated by Zimbabwean security forces, including abductions and torture of civic leaders and opposition members.

"These cases illustrate a general alarming trend in southern Africa – how state parties across the region are using security institutions to intimidate and silence civil society actors and implant a sense of fear among the country’s citizens," said Leopoldo de Amaral, OSISA's Human Rights Programme Manager, who spoke on the institution's behalf. "In addition, extreme forms of torture are reportedly being used as a means of securing confessions from criminal suspects."

The submission added that none of this has come as a surprise since an African Policing Oversight Forum (APCOF) study on Policing and Human Rights in Southern Africa in 2012 concluded that despite the Southern African Regional Police Commissioners Cooperation Organisation (SARPCCO) having adopted a Code of Conduct in 2001, there is little evidence that this code, which is a non-binding legal instrument, is being adhered to.

SARPCCO’s Code of Conduct sets out key minimum principles – such as integrity, respect for life and the rule of law – which if enforced would strengthen compliance with human rights standards and promote the rule of law. But clearly they are not being enforced by national police services. In fact, the study concludes the opposite, that the ‘excessive use of force and abuse by police officials is a concern affecting all the countries in the region. Arbitrary arrest, excessive use of force during public demonstrations, the use of lethal force, and torture and abuse during investigation and interrogation of suspects are widespread practices.’

OSISA acknowledges that the levels of crime in southern Africa have increased and that an adequate response from everyone is needed, and that there has been significant progress in terms of improving the conduct of certain security services. However, the "reality is that the region’s security services continue to pursue a reactive and narrow law enforcement approach and continue to be responsible for torture, other brutal human rights violations and corruption. Needless to say, this has also contributed to communities increasingly losing faith in their country’s security institutions and services and resorting to unlawful – and often violent – means of resolving disputes."

All of this is happening in the wake of the Marikana massacre and the fatal torture of a Mozambican taxi driver by members of the South African police, both of which are still under investigation.

As OSISA points out, "alarmingly, neither in South Africa nor across the region has the increasingly brutal and illegal behaviour by security forces resulted in a decisive public response from state parties. Indeed, the security forces seem to enjoy impunity. Even when investigations are launched, there are invariably complaints about the slow pace of the probes into police brutality."

OSISA also took the opportunity to criticise the police for their inability to accept that peaceful political and social dissent is a vital element of a healthy democratic process, and should not be viewed as a crime. In particular, the institution highlighted how the police continue to clamp down on dissenting voices and the legitimate public activities of opposition political parties prior to, during and after elections.

"Swaziland and Zimbabwe are both due to hold elections in the coming months and the police in both countries are notorious for preventing public rallies and harassing opposition politicians and civil society figures in the run-up to polls – a clear violation of the basic right to freedom of assembly," said OSISA. "Indeed, this Friday, Swaziland will celebrate 40 years since political parties were banned – another clear violation of a basic right – to freedom of association."

OSISA believes that "security services are a central element of a democratic society. However, they must always be subjected to the rule of law, rather than to whims of the prevailing political elite. They must uphold the law, without fear, favour or prejudice and be accountable, like everybody else. But in many State parties in southern Africa, the security services are increasingly working for ‘regime security’ rather than the ‘human security’ of their fellow citizens."

Given this situation, OSISA is afraid that if State parties do not rein in their security services now, then they are likely to grow into an existential threat to the open, tolerant and democratic societies that Africans aspire to be part of - and called on the African Commission to urge State parties to:

  • Take measures to restrain the security services from using lethal force against unarmed civilians;
  • Halt arbitrary arrests and the use of torture as a mean of interrogation;
  • Advise the security services to respect the cardinal principle of innocent until proven guilty;
  • Criminalise torture and adopt legislative and practical measures to prevent and combat torture;
  • Exhort the security services to stop the harassment and ill treatment of civil society and opposition politicians;
  • Press the security services to respect the separation of powers and the rule of law by obeying and complying with the Constitution and court orders;
  • Set up independent and external civilian oversight mechanisms, including boosting the capacity of national human rights institutions to conduct such a role;
  • Adequately fund, resource and train the security services; and
  • De-militarise and professionalise the police services.


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