10 July 2009

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Wednesday July 8, 2009
Two sides of the same coin

When human rights is sacrificed supposedly on the altar of security, nobody feels safe anymore, not even the enforcers.

READING up on the subject of policing and human rights the other day, I came across some interesting documents.

The Commonwealth Human Rights Report on Police Accountability in 2005 describes a concept that is new to me, that of democratic policing.

This is defined as the idea that the police are protectors of the rights of the citizens and the rule of law, while ensuring the safety and security of all equally.

This definition is not new. In 1996, the UN International Police Task Force declared: “In a democratic society, the police serve to protect, rather than impede, freedoms.

“The very purpose of the police is to provide a safe orderly environment in which these freedoms can be exercised.

“A democratic police force is not concerned with people’s beliefs or associates, their movements or conformity to state ideology. It is not even primarily concerned with the enforcement of regulations of bureaucratic regimens.

“Instead, the police force of a democracy is concerned strictly with the preservation of safe communities and the application of criminal law equally to all people, without fear or favour.”

It follows therefore that if we are to call ourselves a democratic country, the functioning of the police is very central to our perception of ourselves.

We can no longer defend our democracy by simply saying that we have elections every five years, but must also look at how our public institutions behave.

To quote the Commonwealth report once again: “As the primary agency responsible for protecting human security, the police are particularly responsible for turning the promise of human rights into reality.

“The failure of the police to properly perform their duties has a significant effect on the ability of citizens to enjoy the full spectrum of all their human rights and can also impact negatively on the ability of governments to deliver on their mandates.”

In other words, in a democratic society, it is quite possible for the police to be the main human rights agency in the country.

People have a right to safety and security, so ensuring that they are able to go about their business safely is a human rights job.

Making sure that their complaints are seen to quickly is another, as well as seeing that investigations are done properly so that justice can be served.

But this only happens if law enforcers see citizens as essentially good people. However if the attitude is that citizens are just one seething mass of potential lawbreakers, then a problem arises.

How do you protect people when basically you think people are just waiting to be bad?

This seems to be the basic difference in perspective between law enforcers and citizens.

Law enforcers believe that people cannot be trusted to behave themselves and therefore must act before they break the law.

Citizens on the other hand believe in what is just and fair and cannot understand why they should face punitive action just for believing that.

Yet, I have seen citizens gather to discuss difficult and sensitive subjects with greater civility than I have seen law enforcers. That is perhaps the other insight.

Civilians learn that the right way to behave is always to be civil even when you heartily disagree with others. Uniformed personnel see things in more black and white; there is simply no room for disagreement.

This inevitably puts law enforcers and civilians on a collision course. Civilians don’t see why things cannot be in the open; law enforcers prefer things to be kept in the dark so that they will always have the upper hand.

Civilians think that they can be trusted to not create chaos and disorder; law enforcers don’t believe so.

This is why we see otherwise peaceful demonstrations become disorderly after the police have acted, not before.

Most people also have a sense of natural justice that forms the basis of their concept of human rights. Even children have a sense of what is fair and what is not.

Yet, there are some people who think that human rights are “ideals” that cannot be realised if we are also to think of security.

The funny thing is when human rights is sacrificed supposedly on the altar of “security”, nobody feels safe anymore, not even the enforcers.

As an example, Israel has never been able to feel safe since it took away the rights of the Palestinians to live in their own land. More tough measures to ensure Israeli security have done nothing to ease the situation. The same can be seen anywhere human rights is suppressed.

Perhaps it is time for major re-education of law enforcement on what human rights means. And that their disregard for it reflects badly on the political masters they serve.