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Illusive proportional use of force – what it is, what it is not

Illusive proportional use of force – what it is, what it is not

Violence has now become a norm in one or more parts of Ethiopia; conflicts as a result of demands for widened democratization, discriminatory actions, or requests to uphold constitutional rights of individuals and groups is increasingly taking over the political life of the nation.

The fact of the matter is that violence, protest, conflict, and attack on defenseless civilians is unmistakably on the rise, especially, since the 2016 protest that began in Oromia Regional State and then expanded to the Amhara Region to subsequently engulf the whole country. These protests, violence, conflicts, and attacks claimed precious lives of the youth in these regions and the nation. According to rights groups like the Human Rights Watch, hundreds of civilian protestors had been killed by security forces during the early days of the movement.

Meanwhile, after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) came to power following the three-year intense protest in the majority parts of the country, the violence and conflict in different parts of country had simmered down for a short while, only to resurface latter on. These conflicts, as violent as they were, displaced millions of Ethiopians in every corner of the country. According to some reports, during the early days of PM Abiy’s ascendency to power, although some conflicts and attacks had claimed lives, deaths as a result of the confrontation between security forces and protesters were not as common as they were during the three years protests before his rise to power. Nevertheless, Abiy’s administration did not escape criticism for its alleged passive stance on protests and ethnic-centered violence and for failing to protect the rights of people to life and property.

However, it did not take long for the administration to get accused of grave human rights abuses and extrajudicial killings of demonstrators, in recent times.

Prime example of such allegations include the series of incidents that took place in Wolaita Zone of the Southern Regional State, in recent weeks, following the arrest of zonal officials and “instigators” of the Zone’s quest for statehood. Protesters overwhelmed the streets of Sodo, Areka, and Boditi towns, immediately, after the news of the arrests came out, and faced members of the regional special force and the military, who in turn were tasked to quell the protests. Although there are no official confirmations as to the final death toll and overall damages, numerous social media posts have claimed that a number of protesters have lost their lives during the recent protests both in Oromia and Wolaita, for which largely local and federal security forces have been blamed. On this account, Amnesty International’s Director for East and Southern Africa, Deprose Muchena said, “There is never a justification for the use of lethal force when it is not to protect lives. This unnecessary force has claimed so many lives in recent days, including protesters and bystanders. Among the people who have been killed are a boy who was homeless and a woman with a mental disability, neither of whom were participating in the protests. No one should be killed for exercising their right to freedom of peaceful assembly or for being around a protest.”

Similarly, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) announced that “the proportionality of the force used by security forces on demonstrators in some towns of Wolaitta on August 10, 2020, is questionable,” and that it warrants further investigation in to the matter.

On another report, concerning the conflicts and attacks in Oromia Regional State following the killings of the renowned artist Hachalu Hundessa, the EHRC stated that it “is deeply alarmed by the loss of life amid protests in Oromia and call up on authorities to direct security forces to exercise maximum restraint and not to use excessive force,” apart from calling for the government to launch an immediate inquiry.

The EHRC, a democratic institution that oversees the alignment of government actions with constitutionally granted and internationally acknowledged human rights values, repeatedly called upon the government to ensure that “local authorities and security bodies use only proportionate force and exercise restraint from using lethal force in law enforcement operations.”

But, what constitutes proportional use of force is disputed concept that is understood differently by different rights groups, experts as well as security forces, and law enforcement bodies. For instance, the United Nation’s relates the matter with the level of arms security forces are equipped with when dealing with demonstration.

The Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials by the United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner states that “governments and law enforcement agencies shall adopt and implement rules and regulations on the use of force and firearms against persons by law enforcement officials. In developing such rules and regulations, governments and law enforcement agencies shall keep the ethical issues associated with the use of force and firearms constantly under review. Governments and law enforcement agencies should develop a range of means as broad as possible and equip law enforcement officials with various types of weapons and ammunition that would allow for a differentiated use of force and firearms. These should include the development of non-lethal incapacitating weapons for use in appropriate situations, with a view to increasingly restraining the application of means capable of causing death or injury to persons.”

On the other hand, Berihun Teshale, in a commentary piece penned for Reporter Amharic newspaper in June 2016, argues that, although he points out that extraordinary killings are crimes against humanity according to the Ethiopian constitution, the fact that people died by the actions of security forces does necessarily make it a crime.

“But, when we say that the measures taken are proportional, we mean that the use of force is meant to protect the lives and rights of the individuals from transgression by other unlawful attacks and when there are no other alternatives to avert the risk. Hence, depending on this or other situations, it becomes a lawful action within the framework of the law,” he argues.

Wubshet Mulat, a lawyer by profession, wrote a commentary for the web-based site Ethio Reference in February 2018, stating that “use of force by the police should depend on tangible information, and situation analysis of the current happenings, risks, and hazards along with the fact that there are no other alternatives to control it. If people are hurt because of police using force, it should provide first aid medical care and provide medical services accordingly.”

Again, a directive issued in April 2020 by the peace and security subcommittee for the implementation of the state of emergency for the prevention of COVID-19 disease, under its section three article 11 discusses proportional use of force without actually defining it in clear terms.

The directive that The Reporter accessed from the Federal Police Commission states that security people must bring trespassers of the proclamation to face the law, and “the security personnel could use proportional force while implementing the state of emergency as well as the directive to protect theirs and others’ lives and property from hazards.” But, any use of force should be evaluated and monitored accordingly to ensure that the actions are legal, professional, and ethical, the directive stresses. Any use of force by the police or the defense forces is poised to result in a group or individual accountability.

Although proportional use of force is acknowledged in the police training and working procedure manuals, Alemayehu Bawdi, Southern Region Peace and Security Bureau Head, argues that “any law enforcement measure is meant to correct wrongdoers rather than to use force,” he told The Reporter adding that, “this could be as a result of confrontations between the security personnel who say all things should follow the legal procedure and others who want to fulfill their demands through force. The use of force is not a planned action.”

Alemayehu makes examples out of the protests in Oromia and Sidama Regional States, where protests erupted and caused the destruction of properties and loss of lives. So, in such incidents, when the security forces resist moves by rioters to burn properties, kill people, and disrupt peaceful lives, people die, he indicated. According to him, there were similar problems in Wolaita, in recent weeks, and the confrontations with security personnel, who stood against destruction, have resulted in the death of people. But, when it was possible to avert destruction that could have followed, the measures taken by security forces could be justified; especially when compared to what happened in Oromia and Sidama Regions, he said.

“The proportionality of security forces’ actions is mostly gauged according to the level of the problem the country has faced. What happened in Oromia, in previous protests, for example, is in the presence of security forces that are supposed to be protecting people. What can benefit the country is when we can avert dangers like this,” Alemayehu argued.

While rights groups and opposition political parties criticize the actions by security forces in Wolaita for firing on peaceful demonstrators, Alemayehu disagrees, saying that the protesters were not peaceful demonstrators but rioters who carried fuel in plastic bottles and jerry cans to burn key institutions and marked residential houses. He added that they were also throwing stones on security officials.

“As this had to be stopped, we stopped it in the manner it needs to be done,” he stated adding that, “proportionality, therefore, should be measured according to the level of damage that could have happened. According to our assessment, hundreds to thousands of people could have died had this not been stopped. We take actions based on the level of conflict and the damages as a result,” he said.

He also argues that there should be a distinction between peaceful demonstration and rioting. Those closing roads, burning houses, destroying properties, and trying to snatch arms from security personnel are not peaceful demonstrators as was seen in Boditi, for instance, he said.

“What we are seeing in our country is not a peaceful demonstration but rioting,” he observes.

There are multiple tiers of government security forces that are tasked with maintaining the peace and security of the country. Starting from the local militia, the tier includes regular Police, regional Special Forces, and Federal Police and the Military. Usually, the military and the federal police forces jointly work in countrywide missions to quell protests and violence. The local militia and regular police forces usually work on the prevention of crimes in a community and educate the community to avoid involvement in criminal activities. When protests and violence begin to claim lives and destroy property, the Special Forces enter the places of conflict and if the situation intensifies, Federal Forces are sent in.

Procedures of when and how federal security forces enter regional administrations are in place but there are no legal frameworks for use of force by security people when they act to suppress violence. The Federal Attorney-General drafted a proclamation in February 2019 to govern the use of proportional force by security forces. But, it has not yet been ratified.

While this is work in progress, actions by security forces against protesters concern multiple rights groups because of a lack of accountability of security forces that used excessive forces in the past. In its recent report entitled Beyond Law Enforcement: Human Rights Violations by Ethiopian Security Forces in Amhara and Oromia, Amnesty International stated that “the bulk of past atrocities in Ethiopia -including widespread acts of killing, torture and other ill-treatment, and excessive use of force against protesters –have remained unaccounted for so far.”