Sunday, December 4, 2022

The case for independent police oversight

Ethiopia’s human rights record still leaves a lot to be desired despite the modicum of improvement witnessed after the administration of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) assumed office in April 2018. Since then the federal government has undertaken wide-ranging political, institutional and legislative reforms aimed at improving the human right situation in Ethiopia. Although the reforms have admittedly led to advances in the enjoyment and protection of civil and political rights in Ethiopia, the tasks awaiting it in fulfilling the aspirations of Ethiopians in this regard are arduous to say the least.  The government, however, is painting a rosy picture, claiming that in spite of the challenges confronting the country it is very confident that “the sweeping reform measures adopted to date will lead to a profound democratic consolidation – and progressively guarantee that democratic norms will take root.”

This upbeat tone was conveyed in a statement delivered in mid-October by an Ethiopian delegation at the 136th Meeting of the Human Rights Committee, the body of independent experts that monitors implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights by its State parties and to which all signatories are obliged to submit regular reports on how the rights are being implemented. The statement though conceded that the journey in towards political and democratic transformation has not been without difficulties. It said the endeavor had been put to the ultimate test by the deadly war in northern Ethiopia triggered by the terrorist-designated Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). It also indicated ethnically motivated violent armed violence in some localities led to the death and displacement, extrajudicial killings, sexual violence, torture and degrading treatments, and mass destruction of properties and means of livelihoods of a considerable number of Ethiopians.

While the government has taken commendable steps in broadening the political space and enabling citizens to exercise the basic freedoms guaranteed under the constitution, these rights continue to be routinely flouted by law enforcement agencies. A case in point is a recently disclosed egregious abuse of power perpetrated by members of the police and the army. According to a criminal charged instituted by the Ministry of Justice the suspects allegedly committed assault, extortion and illegal detention against two victims with intent to enrich themselves while one of them raped one of the victims as well. This and other instances of willful disregard of law enforcement personnel’s’ sworn obligation demonstrate that the old habits the current government inherited from its predecessors are thriving and point to the imperative to deepen the institutional and legal reforms pursued so far.

One of the measures which goes some way towards to assuring that law enforcement organs, namely the police, act in a manner always respecting the fundamental rights enshrined in the constitution is the implementation of an independent police oversight mechanism. Under the Ethiopian criminal and criminal procedure codes as well as a host of other laws the police are vested with a wide array of powers. These powers include the ability to, among others, arrest, conduct searches, use force, enter private premises and seize property, and engage in covert investigation and surveillance. There are a set of legal standards by which the legality of these actions is assessed to determine if the police acted within the scope of their authority. In addition to these, though, the existence of an effective complaints handling system can help to hold police more broadly accountable for how they exercise these powers.

Similar to other countries police officers abusing the powers they are entrusted with are subject to an internal discipline system and where the infraction rises to a criminal level to action by the appropriate prosecutorial organ. The genuine independence of police processes, both in fact and appearance, is central to their integrity and the maintenance of public trust in policing. Naysayers of self-regulation, however, contend that the police cannot be trusted to police themselves. Although this argument is an oversimplification, there abound instances where various police forces in Ethiopia have been and continue to be culpable of misuse of official powers. True, the Ministry of Justice has done a commendable job of bringing to justice police officers who have committed infractions. Though it may succeed in catching and punishing some offenders, it simply cannot on its own be effective in preventing future deviance. That is why a not inconsiderable number of jurisdictions have adopted independent oversight as the preferred model of police accountability.  

The police oversight entity envisaged under this model should ideally be able, inter alia, to investigate any complaints related to disciplinary or criminal offences committed by any member of the police force, whether on its own motion or on receipt of a complaint; make recommendations to the relevant authorities, including recommendations for prosecution, compensation, internal disciplinary action or any other appropriate relief; and make public the response received to these recommendations. It must also be empowered with conducting a comprehensive study which informs the public and different police forces about systemic problems for the purposes of remediation and prevention of police misconduct and corruption. Needless to say the entity can discharge its responsibility if it’s underpinned by the requisite legal framework and political will necessary for its institutional and operational independence. This will contribute a great deal to the attainment of the government’s stated goal of establishing a system of institutional checks and balances that facilitate a more meaningful respect, protection and promotion of human rights in Ethiopia.

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