By Dilbato Degoye Waqo
January 28, 2018
“Whereas it is essential if man is not compelled as a last resort to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law.”
[The Preamble to the UDHR, 1948]
As historical accounts of state-society relations in Ethiopia even before the creation of a centralized empire-state by Emperor Menelik II in the 19th century clearly elucidate, the struggle for political power in this country has always resembled a duel to the death, a victory most often attained by political machinations and aided by the power of the sword and/or the barrel of the gun and the ever dominant Orthodox clergy. All undisputed and unchallengeable political leaders of modern-day Ethiopia beginning from Emperor Tewodrosx(1855-1868), Emperor Yohannis (1868-1889) to Emperor Menelik II (1889-1913), and from Emperor Haile Sellassie I (1930-1974) to Col Mengistu Haile Mariam (1974- 1991) to the EPRDF (1991- ) came through political subterfuge, violence and bloodshed. Their soldiers were allowed a free hand in terrorizing the peasant masses; they ruled through terror and fear, as fearful people are easy to rule and the rulers like it that way. The state-society relations in Ethiopia have always been antagonistic, as the regimes that alternated at the helm of state power were not elected through the free will of the people. They came to power through political machinations and violence, ruled the submissive masses by violence and were eventually ousted by violence when the ruling violent regimes could no longer overcome the ever growing popular struggle against oppression and tyranny, against their misrule. Thus the history of modern Ethiopia has been nothing but the history of bitter internal conflicts, civil wars and urban revolts and peasant uprisings across the country. All successive regimes to this day have unabatedly resorted to the deployment of security forces and to the use of excessive force to suppress intermittent revolts and rebellions against oppression and tyranny.
The use of excessive force to settle political disputes as well as to put an end to any challenge to power has always been a norm and not an exception, up until this day. The problem in deploying the military to suppress domestic conflicts and public disturbances is that the military is trained to shoot to kill, to use excessive or lethal force to protect most often the ruling regime from foreign as well as domestic enemies, and there is nothing less harsh measures to expect from them; the military forces are not trained to use minimum force which is the preserve of the police and are not trained to handle police functions. The only guarantee to avoid the use of excessive force is to train sufficient police force and equip them with the necessary adequate gear such as the police baton, hand-cuffs, tear gas, water cannons, police dogs, etc.–tools necessary to disperse or arrest those that pose a threat to public order and peace. The military should not be deployed for such missions unless and otherwise the disturbances are too vast or too intense and dangerous to national security and beyond the controlling capability of the police. Even under such conditions the military contingents should be given adequate pre-deployment training in policing methods and detailed instructions not to use excessive force but, in collaboration with the police force, to disperse or arrest those posing as a security threat.
The puzzle behind Ethiopia’s backwardness and underdevelopment, I strongly believe, emanates mainly from this lack of fundamental human freedoms and the absence of respect for human rights and the rule of law constraining the much-needed stable, healthy and mutually reinforcing state-society relations in the country for such a long time. Isn’t it a paradox that Ethiopia with a history of more than three thousand years, with its written alphabet and never colonized by foreigners trails behind almost all countries of the globe by any socio-economic indicators one chooses to use? Isn’t it because of the repressive and tyrannical nature of the alternating authoritarian regimes and their stifling state institutions to human rights and freedom of thought, in particular those so-called instruments of power or ‘tools of oppression of the ruling class,” and the resulting lack of freedom and the absence of the rule of law as well as a robust human rights regime that we are not even able to overcome fear, poverty and economic deprivation yet?
A brief glimpse at the nature of successive regimes in Ethiopia from Emperor Haile Sellassie to the present explains it all. Emperor Haile Sellassie claimed to be the “Elect of God,” and thus was not accountable to the subjects he ruled but allegedly to God, which was simply wild and absurd to any critical minds, so to speak. He utilized both the earthly absolute force and the heavenly divine power to terrorize his subjects and to rule them through fear–fear for their souls not to go to hell and fear for their bodies not to be inflicted injury and death. During Emperor Haile Sellassie’s reign, peasant uprisings in Bale, Tigrai, Gojjam, Gedeo, Hadiya[Badawacho subgroup] and many other regions were brutally crushed by the security forces; those of Tigrai, and Gojjam were even bombed by the imperial air force. The Neway brothers who attempted a coup against Emperor Haile Sellassie’s rule in 1961,while the emperor was on a visit to Brazil were rounded up and killed by the army, and hanged as common criminals at St.George Square in the capital Addis Abeba. University and high school students who, from time to time, rose up against the injustices of the feudal order, demanding “land to the tiller”, and “democracy and equality to all”, were mercilessly massacred in huge numbers by the military. In June 1969, for example, out of the many hundreds of university and high school students who gathered on the streets of Addis Abeba to mourn the killing of the President of the University Students Union of Addis Abeba, Tilahun Gizaw, by security forces, 100 students were gunned down and more than 200 wounded by the imperial bodyguard [STRUGGLE, Vol. II, No. 2, Organ of the University Students Union of Addis Abeba, USUAA, 1968]. There were no inquiry commissions, no investigations on their wanton massacre, and no judicial system to bring those culprits to justice. The innocent prey became mere history and victims of blind justice, just simple statistics.
The Derg’s [the military junta] period was the worst period of our recent history. Initially, the Derg was quite popular before the masses in the aftermath of the coup against Emperor Haile Sellassie in 1974. The soldiers came to power under the slogan of: “Ethiopia First Without Bloodshed” (Ethiopia Tikdem Yaleminim Dem, in Amharic), “Land to the Tiller!”, and “Democracy and Equality to All Nations and Nationalities!” However, the Derg soon sidelined those popular slogans and concentrated on strengthening its hold on state power, and began massacring its opponents as cattle. It then became deeply unpopular because of these atrocities and due to its subsequent ill-sought-out socio-economic policies which sent shockwaves across the country. Proclaiming a revolutionary agenda for the country, the Derg inaugurated its rule by sending some sixty senior officials of the Emperor’s Government to the firing squad, before the so-called Mermarri Commission (Investigation Commission) established by the Derg itself and chaired by our well known professor of geography, Prof. Mesfin Wolde Mariam, even progressed half-way into its investigations of their wrongful deeds, if any, while in office. The Emperor and the patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox church were both secretly killed in the months that followed. The Derg’s early victims included members of the group itself–General Amman Andom, General Teferi Bante, General Atnafu Abate, Col. Mogus H. Mikael, Major Alemayehu Haile, Major Belai Tsegaye, Amha Abebe, Major Tamirat Woldemariam, etc. Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam emerged as its undisputed leader after orchestrating the physical elimination of rivals from within and without. In 1976, Col. Mengistu gave a dramatic send-off to a campaign of terror that he officially dubbed the “Red Terror”. He threw to the ground before a huge crowd in the “Revolution Avenue” (formerly Mesqel Avenue”) in the capital city Addis Abeba bottles filled with a red substance representing the blood of enemies of the revolution: the “imperialists”, and the “counter-revolutionaries”, as members of rival leftist and right-wing groups were labelled by the Derg and its cadres then. In particular, the campaign targeted students and young people suspected of membership in the EPRP, EPLF, TPLF, EDU, and the OLF. Thousands upon thousands of young men and women were killed, their bodies lying in the streets of Addis Abeba and other towns throughout the country, in front of public buildings, schools, universities in order to scare off others into not supporting opposition groups. They were systematically eliminated by militias attached to the “kebeles” [sub-districts], the neighbourhood watch committees which served during the Derg period (and still serve) as the lowest level local government and security surveillance units. The kebeles sometimes even required families to reimburse the administration for the price of bullets used to kill victims when they reclaimed their bodies for burial. The period that came to be known as the “RED TERROR” decimated most of the educated population and wiped out the so-called cream of society; the lucky or the fortunate ones escaped to neighbouring countries and eventually landed mostly in Europe and the USA. The traumatic effects of these terror campaigns pushed the intellectual circles into utter subservience to tyranny. Even the once vocal and fearless elites chose to zip their mouths, close their ears and their eyes just to stay alive; total apathy overrun the lives of the intellectuals. This pathetic situation still persists to this day and intellectuals at home have literally stopped to stand up even for their own rights, let alone for the rights of their fellow citizens and the general public, as in the past. It is only the country’s youth that seem to have the courage and determination to stand up for the cause of the masses and paying the ultimate price in their limbs as well as their dear lives.
Today, everyone likes to say, “the Derg did this”, and “Mengistu did that”, etc. but the truth is the Derg and Mengistu alone did very little. The Derg was a brutal regime and Mengistu was a world class tyrant, yes, but the evil actually done by the Derg and Mengistu, from the “Red Terror” and the death chambers to the “Bermuda” secret detention and torture chambers/ centres, was all done by Ethiopian citizens who were afraid to question if what they were told by their government and their superiors was the truth or not, and who, because they did not want to admit to themselves that they were afraid to question the government, refused to see the unjust wars against the Eritreans, the Tigreans and many other popular urban and rural uprisings against oppression and tyranny, and followed the Derg and Mengistu into absolute national disaster, simply because of their utter subservience to tyranny. This is a cruel reminder of what apathy and submissiveness can do to undermine and obstruct the struggle for freedom and liberty in our country today and in the times to come.
Even though the current regime made a solemn pledge and declaration beginning in the Transitional Period Charter (1991-1994) and through promulgating the FDRE Constitution of 1994 to make a clean and clear break with the legacy of oppression and tyranny, indiscriminate mass killings [democide] and wanton human rights violations by fully safeguarding and respecting the rule of law, human rights and fundamental freedoms as enshrined in the 1994 FDRE Constitution, its record in keeping its promises in this regard so far leaves a lot to be desired. In particular, its record in safeguarding people’s human rights and political and civil liberties is indeed distressing, to say the least. The indiscriminate killings of hundreds upon hundreds of innocent demonstrators and those who were voicing their anger via peaceful protests at the injustices of local authorities and ruling party cadres such as in Areka, Wolaita (1991), Woter, Oromia (1992), Addis Abeba (1991, 1993, 2001, 2002, 2005), Sheka- Mejenger (1994, 2003), Gambella (2004/5), Awassa, Sidama (2001/2), Ogaden Somali (1992-2005), and the ongoing indiscriminate killings with utter impunity perpetrated against those masses participating in the Oromo (November 2015 to this day) and Amhara popular protests (November June 2016 to this day) etc. by the security forces, and many election-related killings in many regions/localities since 1992, etc. are some of the few examples that glaringly attest to the unaccountability of the rulers of the day to the people they govern and the constitutional order that they have set in place, clearly attesting the “freedom and rule of law drought” as well as the “democratic deficit” still prevalent in the present political system and which also characterize all the past successive regimes. These sorts of gross human rights violations and basic freedoms have continued to this day embarrassing us all with disturbing regularity and impunity. According to periodic reports by the US State Department, Ethiopian Human Rights Council, Amnesty International, International Federation for the Protection of Journalists, Africa Watch, Human Rights Watch, etc., there are thousands of cases each year of assaults and ill-treatments, arbitrary detentions, tortures and extra-judicial killings by security forces who use excessive force and violate the human rights of their victims with impunity. Security forces are continually injuring and even killing people through the use of excessive force and brutal treatment. In many cases even the police go too far when they excessively punch, kick, beat, and shoot people who pose no threat. It is really distressing and quite reprehensible to observe that we as a people have not yet done with and graduated from the Derg era-like atrocities and still destined to continue under a similar reign of terror and massive human rights violations for decades to come. As we critically examine and assess our recent past under the junta and attempt to compare it with our bitter experience under the EPRDF for the last three decades, we shockingly realize that history is repeating itself in a bizarre manner. It reminds us of a succinct observation made by TIME Magazine in 1998; it goes as follows: “In his book ANIMAL FARM George Orwell described how the farmyard animals, freed from the oppression of the farmer only to be oppressed anew by the pigs, “looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again, but already it was impossible to say which was which.”” [TIME, October 12, 1998, p. 47].
The Use of Excessive Force As A Criminal Act
The use of excessive force is a criminal act that should not escape appropriate punishment but which has often been condoned by the authorities especially when it is perpetrated by their cadres, militia members and the security/police forces. It is sad that such atrocities are perpetrated by the same forces who had paid so much sacrifice for freedom and democracy, for the social, economic and political emancipation of the heretofore oppressed peoples, and the civil and political liberties as well as the human rights of the citizens—thus, sadly, the once victims of state-sponsored terror and brutality now becoming perpetrators themselves, paradoxically reversing their roles. What is the meaning of the victorious consummation of aliberation struggle if the so-called liberated people at large are not enabled to enjoy its fruits: freedom, peace, security, prosperity, political and civil liberty, rule of law and democracy? What is the purpose and lesson of bringing the Derg’s officials and their functionaries to justice if we do not make a clean and clear break with the ugly past, and instead seem doomed to repeat the same misdeeds and misrule of the Derg era? As the old adage warns, “Those who do not learn lessons from the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them.”
So, for those of us who have lived long enough to closely and critically examine and re-examine the history of modern-day Ethiopia up to this day, it was indeed laughable to watch the Ethiopian parliament establish a so-called impartial inquiry commission by hand-picking a few local judges and other professionals to investigate and report whether or not the security forces “used excessive force, caused damage to life and property, showed lack of respect for human rights, etc.”, during the public disturbances and riots that occurred on June 8, and November 1-10, 2005 following the disputed elections of May 15, 2005, culminating in the killings of 193 protestors and seven security personnel as well as the damage in public and private property worth over four million birr.
But, why try to investigate things that do not at all require any investigations at all? Why expend so much time, energy and money to investigate something that has almost become a daily occurrence in Ethiopia for the last several years or so? Do we need a commission to investigate and report whether or not the earth is flat, when we already know that this had been proved many centuries ago by Galileo? Have the security forces refrained from their use of excessive force against citizens and arbitrarily violating their human rights? I don’t think so. They are there, everywhere and for everybody who has eyes to see, ears to hear, tongues to speak and hands to put pen to paper. Thus, the establishment of an Inquiry Commission by the Parliament to verify whether or not excessive force was used, human rights abused, etc., in the post-2005 election-related riots and public disturbances by security forces was indeed laughable. It was simply another dramatic send-off to the inconsequential but often irritating and nagging parliamentary opposition, a good method of hoodwinking the Ethiopian public, an easy way out to pacify the urban hotheads and a simple method to appease the docile citizenry. What a mockery of justice!
The saddest of all is that considerable damage has been done to the progress of democratization so far recorded in the country and it will take us a long time to repair the damage done: private press that mushroomed over the last decade is in retreat or pushed back, civil society and in particular political NGOs are in serious trouble, press freedom is stifled, the political air is filled with hatred, and there is so much mistrust and fear amongst the protagonists in the political arena and among the public at large. This situation is indeed worrisome for the future of our young and fragile democracy, and even for the very survival of our nation.
Whatever the case, those innocent citizens who braved to oppose the ruling party’s alleged election fraud and went out to protest against this perceived wrong-doing in defiance of the government’s ban on public rallies/assemblies paid incalculable sacrifices mainly because of the gross folly of their wishy-washy leadership, a leadership that was not there to lead the angry masses of supporters at that crucial and decisive moment and in the right direction towards peaceful resistance and civil disobedience, instead of bloody riots and unruly public
disturbances. The showdown and skirmishes that erupted between the security forces and demonstrators resulted in the killing of 193 demonstrators, the detention of over 30,000 people and the injury/wounding of 763 civilians by security forces. These public disturbances also resulted in the death of six policemen and the injury of 71 police officers. Damage to property was estimated at birr 4,454,392.97 ($512,588.00). According to the report, among the detained, some were tortured, and in other cases security forces fired 1,500 bullets at prisoners, killing 17 and injuring 53 prisoners. These are all now simple statistics, but never to be forgotten by their immediate families and friends.
The Inquiry Commission which was established by the parliament in October 2006 concluded its report, and after meticulous and intensive investigations and verifications, reported to the parliament a few months after the bloody riots and disturbances subsided that “the measures taken by the security forces were excessive and not proportionate to the nature and degree of the civil unrest and disturbances” though these findings were later forcefully changed by another timid commission hastily minted by the ruling party after the chairperson and deputy fled the country for safe havens in Europe and later the USA. The so-called commission of inquiry went to the opposite extreme of the first verdict and passed its judgment stating that the measures taken by the security forces were not excessive at all; it even went further to condemn that “the attempts were to dismantle the constitutional order and lead the nation into turmoil….” The allegation by some conspiracy theorists, including myself then due to lack of correct information, was that ‘a color revolution of the Georgian (2003)- and Ukrainian (2004)-type’ was attempted by foreign political NGOs from Europe and elsewhere in collaboration with the European Union Election Observer Mission and their local puppets. That may be true or untrue but should the incumbent regime order its police and military to indiscriminately shoot and kill the demonstrators when they were, in most cases, peacefully voicing their anger at the alleged election fraud by the ruling party? Who would justify this atrocity as proportional to the threat posed by the peaceful protests? Isn’t this outrageously excessive? If this is not excessive what else is? This report was finally endorsed by the docile parliament on a majority vote. It was in fact approved only by members of the ruling party [EPRDF] in parliament. The opposition parties and many citizens at home and abroad did not and still do not agree with the parliament’s decision, accusing the Inquiry Commission of not being impartial, and of colluding with the all-dominant ruling party. What a travesty of justice!
The purpose of this paper is neither to discuss the ugly prelude and the stormy background to the possible causes of the riots– in consideration of not scratching the wounds suffered and in fear of adding insult to injury– and the havoc wreaked upon innocent civilians nor to harp on the legal, political, socio-economic and psychological impacts, intricacies and arguments surrounding this “darkest chapter of our recent past” but to deal with the question of the appropriateness or inappropriateness of the use of force in general and “excessive force” in particular by security forces in their mission to quell violent demonstrations and civil disturbances that are sadly uncalled for features that sometimes crop up in the exercise of the constitutional freedoms and rights of citizens to express their disapproval of the government’s perceived wrong-doings–the right to protest and peaceably assemble in public places, the right of assembly and association, and the freedom of expression. The paper also makes a modest attempt to elaborate on the conceptual discourse surrounding the use of force and “excessive force” based on international standards and principles developed and adopted by the United Nations and recommended for observation by law enforcement officials of member countries. This article is aimed at urging Ethiopia to make these principles and standards part and parcel of our domestic rules and regulations and move
closer to the expectations and aspirations of the international community, being a respectable founding member of the UN and the AU. Finally, the paper will end the expose with brief concluding remarks.
Constitutional Rights of Freedom of Assembly and Association versus the Security
The framers of our Constitution based many of their democratic ideals on the principle that the “..Nations, Nationalities and Peoples” of the country, in short the people, are the source of all authority in the nation. That is, the power of government originates in the people who band together to form society and who transfer certain natural rights (particularly the right to protect their own rights through force) to the government to enhance their mutual benefit. These are what Western democracies call “Social Contract Theory” of John Locke and his other contemporary philosophers. Thus, power does not originate in the government; it originates in the people whose will establishes and legitimizes the government. If the power of government is derived directly from the political will of the people, how could the government possibly be justified in deploying security forces to disperse or silence public assemblies designed to do just that–express the will of the people? The FDRE Constitution, 1994, protects the freedom of expression, the right to protest and to demonstrate, the freedom of assembly and association and thus the right to peaceably assemble in public places and to stage public rallies. How could we then agree that there are still cases that warrant the deployment of security forces against those who are freely assembling to express their public conscience?
The answer is “SECURITY.” Since the primary purpose of any government is to provide security against foreign and domestic enemies for the population, the government cannot allow unauthorized and hence unlawful public assemblies or rallies that may degenerate to violent and security-threatening riots and demonstrations endangering the safety and security of innocent bystanders and their property. When political demonstrations become violent, they lose their protection under the Constitutional rights to “peaceably assemble.” They enter into a completely different category of political expression; they transform from non-violent, political expression, akin to civil disobedience, to violent acts whose political message is obscured by the threat of injury and destruction of property. “If protesters attempt…to interfere with programs or to appropriate facilities for their own use” (Peltason, 217), the state has the obligation to disperse the participants and arrest those involved in criminal activities, but never apply lethal, excessive force unless targeting specific snipers or arsonists. When people who happen to live or work in the area where the protests are taking place are in danger of losing their lives or their property, the government is required to provide for their security. As John Stuart Mill recognized in ON LIBERTY, “…the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”[Mill, 9] The only real limits to the exercise of liberty emerge when such exercise violates the rights of others.
As mentioned earlier, the primary reason people band together in civil society is their desire for security. Consequently, during instances of violent civil disturbances, protecting innocent people and their property becomes the primary duty of the government and takes precedence over the government’s duty to protect the protesters’ right to assemble. Those assembled relinquish their right to this particular form of political expression when they allow their means of address to become violent. When governmental authorities disperse a violent protest, the protesters’ rights are not being abrogated; instead, the rights of innocent bystanders are being enforced and protected. The government’s primary intent in these instances is to protect people from violence. There will be ample, alternative channels of political expression to which the protesters may resort to at some later juncture.
The Use of Force and Excessive Force
Law enforcement officials throughout the world may have to use force in the course of their duties. But unlike many of the activities for which law enforcement officials are responsible (e.g. traffic control, conducting an arrest, etc.), the use of force should always remain exceptional. As a matter of fact, the use of force by law enforcement officials is strictly regulated and limited, or ought to be, by domestic laws, laws that may differ from one country to the other.
The international community has also sought to establish general principles that should be
observed by law enforcement officials throughout the world and that may guide the
regulations established by domestic law. These principles are embodied in two documents:
the United Nations Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials (1978) and the United
Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials
(1990). According to these international standards, force of any kind should only be used exceptionally: in other words, the use of force should not be the norm but the exception. Law enforcement officials may use force only: when strictly necessary and to the extent required for the performance of their duty, including, (a) to prevent crime, (b) to effect or assist in the lawful arrest of suspected offenders, and after all non-violent methods available have been used but have remained ineffective. The use of force beyond these limits is characterized as “excessive.”
Let’s look at the various elements composing this definition:
* Strictly necessary: A possible way to interpret this expression is the following: it is
reasonable to assume that, under the circumstances, law enforcement officials had no alternative but to use force. No force going beyond that may be used.
*To the extent required for the performance of officers’ duties: These duties include, to
prevent crimes, to effect a lawful arrest. Broadly speaking, a crime may be defined as all those activities prohibited by criminal law. It should be the responsibility of the law
enforcement officials to demonstrate that the activities they were trying to prevent constituted a “crime” in accordance with the law in force in the country. Conducting an arrest will be lawful if the required procedure has been followed, such as, in many cases, obtaining an arrest warrant.
* After all non-violent methods have been tried: this is pretty straightforward. Non-violent methods may include: spending time trying to convince someone to surrender or to stop acting in an unlawful way, talking to individuals, etc. All such methods should be included in internal guidelines or regulations regarding policing or security operations.
Some national states have sought to define the limits imposed on the use of force through the principle of proportionality.
What does “excessive” mean?
The use of force may be described as “excessive” when it will go beyond the limits identified by the above principles, that is:
*when the law enforcement officials’ objectives were unlawful
* when the offence committed was not serious enough to mandate such a strong reaction on the part of the authorities, or did not constitute an offence at all under national criminal law or international human rights principles.
For instance, the use of force will be characterized as excessive if a suspect is offering no or little resistance to the law enforcement officers, or if the force used by the police officers is “too much” in relation to the situation, the nature of the offence and the resistance encountered.
*When law enforcement officials did not try to use all other non-violent or less-violent means
available to them;
*when domestic laws, internal regulations, or superiors’ instructions have failed to identify the limits for the performance of law enforcement officials’ duties;
*when law enforcement officials did not abide by the procedures established by domestic
laws, internal regulations, or their superiors;
*when domestic laws, internal regulations or instructions from superiors encourage or allow the use of force when it is reasonable to assume that it should not be used.
When Can Law Enforcement Officials Use Firearms?
The use of firearms is among the most potentially deadly type of force–excessive and
lethal force. This is why, again, the international community has developed principles to regulate their use by law enforcement officials: the “UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials (1990)”.The use of firearms is considered as an extreme measure and every effort should be made to exclude their use.
*” Firearms should only be used after all less extreme measures have been used but have not been successful
* Firearms should only be used for the following purposes:
–in self-defense or the defense of others against an imminent threat of death or serious
— to prevent particularly serious crime involving grave threats to life
— to arrest a person who poses a grave threat to life, who resists authority or attempts to
*The use of firearms should not be lethal: Law enforcement officers are required to use
firearms in a manner which minimizes injury and respects human life: intentional lethal force is only permitted “when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life.”
* The use of firearms beyond these limits is characterized as “excessive.”
Broadly speaking, investigation on the use of firearms may focus on two main issues: the
methods used and the purposes. The focus on the methods used requires us to consider:
–what happened before the law enforcement officials used their firearms and whether they
tried to use other (less lethal) methods;
–the type of weapon used;
— how it was used: i.e. did law enforcement officials appear to aim at the offenders’ vital
The focus on the purposes requires us to consider whether anyone’s life was at risk, be they the law enforcement officials themselves, other individuals at the scene (e.g. passers-by), individuals who were not on the scene but whose life may have been at risk (for instance, if the suspects were to evade arrest).
What About Demonstrations?
You should first remember that everyone has the right of freedom of peaceful/peaceable
assembly and association. These are human rights guaranteed by international human rights law, and all constitutions of democracies throughout the world. Demonstrations can be categorized as lawful, unauthorized/unlawful and violent.
Whether an assembly is lawful depends on the regulations in the country and on the steps undertaken by the organizers to abide by these regulations. If they have taken such steps and the authorization has been given, then the assembly is lawful.
Under such circumstances, the limits imposed on the use of force are exactly the same as
those identified above.
A demonstration will be characterized as unlawful by state officials if the authorization for assembly is required by law and has not been granted.
The permission for an assembly may be denied by state officials on a number of grounds , such as that the assembly may constitute a threat to national security, or endanger the safety, or health, or freedoms of others.
But, quite often, a permission to demonstrate may be rejected by state officials because of
what the demonstrators are calling for. By rejecting the demand for assembly, the government may commit a human rights violation, i.e. it may violate the right to freedom of peaceable assembly and the right to freedom of expression.
In all cases, whether the denial of permission for assembly was legitimate or not, the use of
force to disperse unlawful assemblies is limited. The international principle governing the use of force in such circumstances (Principle 13 of the Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms) states:
In the dispersal of assemblies that are unlawful but non-violent, law enforcement
officials shall avoid the use of force or, where that is not practicable, shall restrict such force
to the strict minimum necessary.
What about violent demonstrations?
Again, the principles identified in the above three sections still hold: the use of force and the use of firearms must be exceptional and strictly limited.
However, law enforcement officials are more likely to be placed in a situation where they
have to conduct arrests and use force than if they were dispersing a peaceful assembly or
arresting an unarmed individual.
The international principle (Principle 14 of the Basic Principles on the Use of Force and
In the dispersal of violent assemblies, law enforcement officials may use firearms only
when less dangerous means are not practicable and only to the minimum extent necessary.
Law enforcement officials shall not use firearms in such case, except under the circumstances highlighted above.”
(UN Basic Principles on the Use of Fire Arms…)
What Should Happen After an Alleged Case of Excessive Use of Force?
According to international standards, governments should demonstrate that they will not tolerate the arbitrary or abusive use of force and firearms by law enforcement officers by making such abuse punishable as a criminal offence, and by ensuring that law enforcement officers responsible for such abuses are charged and tried. States are obliged to: carry out impartial and exhaustive investigations into all allegations of killings resulting from the use of firearms; clarify the circumstances of the incident; identify those responsible; bring them to justice; compensate the victims or their families; make the results of the investigations public.
Our civilian government uses the military to defend against foreign enemies and external
threats while using the domestic police primarily for defense against internal threats.
Nevertheless, in certain situations, when the violence may be too intense or too vast for the
local or regional authorities to control, these authorities are justified in requesting deployment of the military to reinforce their efforts to quell civil disturbances. Since the primary purpose of the government is to provide security for the population, the government may utilize all of its available resources to accomplish that purpose.
The problem in deploying the military for quelling domestic conflicts, however, is that the military are not trained to handle or tackle police functions; they are trained to use maximum, excessive force to shoot to kill and not the use of minimum force which is the preserve of the police forces. If deploying the military is mandatory, then, they have to be given adequate police training, equipment and specific instructions before they are deployed in order to avoid the use of lethal force. The best way out for the government and also for the security andxsafety of the people in this regard will undoubtedly be to train sufficient police force, equip them with all the necessary tools for policing functions and provide them with clear and humane rules and regulations to be strictly followed and applied. The costs to be incurred in training sufficient police and providing them with the state-of-the-art equipment and tools will be much lower than the costs that will be borne by the government in the aftermath of military operations conducted to suppress domestic, civil disturbances and riots.
At the grassroots level, any effort by the government to eradicate the sources of civil unrest and the proliferation of armed resistance movements can be very helpful in precluding the need for soldiers to engage in this sort of domestic police mission. Force should be used in only the minimum amount needed to achieve a legitimate purpose. The police have many tools at their disposal when the need for using force arises. These include the police baton, tear gas, water cannons and hoses, hand-cuffs, police dogs and firearms. An officer of the law can be properly trained to administer the law in an unbiased way that will not violate a citizen’s rights. The citizens have to be continually made aware of the domestic laws governing their fundamental human rights and basic freedoms, so that the government as wellas the people at large will abide by the rule of law. As LBJ said in the 1960s, “The only genuine, long-range solution for what has happened lies in an attack–mounted at every level–upon the conditions that breed despair and violence” [Price, 211].
Finally, since political authority originates in the people, citizens of a democracy should be
allowed, or even encouraged, to express themselves politically. When that political expression degrades into a civil disturbance, the onus lies on our civilian authorities to verify that theyhave the moral authority required to deploy armed military forces to disperse it, never, ever to use excessive, lethal force except against specific snipers and arsonists. That is the way forward. No excessive force and heavy-handed approach can win the hearts and minds of our people and enable us to build a better tomorrow—a peaceful, prosperous, democratic and stable Ethiopia– for ourselves and our children, and for generations to come.
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