Thursday June 21 2012

Uganda Police Force needs an oversight body to redeem image

By Sarah Mount

Amidst the recent allegations of police brutality against journalists, Inspector General Kale Kayihura has established a police “Press Unit” to investigate complaints of human rights violations against the media. According to the Human Rights Network for Journalists (HRNJ), there were more than 100 recorded assaults against journalists in 2011, with most complaints being against the police. Significantly, HRNJ also state that none of these incidents were investigated conclusively, although the IGP has recently promised to re-open and investigate all cases again.

Whilst the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative applauds the Kayihura on establishing such an internal unit, we believe the government should also establish an independent body to investigate all complaints of serious misconduct by the police, including complaints made by journalists.
What would be the use of such a body?

A specific body to oversee the police is a key way to ensure that the police are accountable to the public - the people they are employed to protect. Such a body could impartially investigate all complaints of serious misconduct by police officers, and report on their findings to the public. The body could also investigate all deaths and injuries that were caused as a result of police action, as the newly established Kenyan Independent Policing Oversight Authority will do.

This will mean the actions of the police that significantly infringe on people’s rights, such as causing a death or a serious injury, will be checked. If the police were acting lawfully and appropriately in the situation, then this will be the outcome of the investigation. If the police were not acting lawfully, then the independent body could recommend prosecution or appropriate disciplinary action.

This body could also audit the investigations of the internal police units, to check that such investigations are being carried out satisfactorily, eventually reducing the need for the IGP to keep re-opening already investigated cases.

Although the Uganda Police Force might initially be wary of a body that checks their actions, in reality it will actually be a good thing for the police. Oversight of police actions by an independent body will help redeem the image of the police, that has suffered a battering after the deaths and injuries caused during the walk-to-work protests, the Ingrid Turinawe incident, the publicly admitted human rights violations committed by officers of the former Rapid Response Unit and the high number of reported assaults against journalists.

Unfortunately, this means honest, decent police officers suffer from the negative image caused by the actions of a few. This, however, could change if there was a body to check the police and report their findings publicly, improving the public trust in the police force, leading to police officers once again gaining the respect and confidence of the public. In turn, the public will feel ready to come forward and assist the police in their work.

Further, establishing such a body would ensure that the government can meet its obligations under the United Nations Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process. Under the UPR process, the government agreed to ensure “impartial, independent investigations are undertaken into allegations of human rights violations by security forces, including torture and other cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment, and that the findings of those investigations be made public”.

Although setting up an internal unit to investigate violations against the media is a good step, in addition to this unit, an external oversight body will also strengthen the Force. It is critical in ensuring that the police are both held, and seen to be held, accountable for their actions. The establishment of such a body will be beneficial for everybody in Uganda as it will improve public trust in the police, and increase respect and public cooperation with the police.

Ms Mount is the programme officer, Access to Justice – East Africa Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative