Recently, the government announced the immediate disbandment of the police Rapid Response Unit. The police spokesperson stated that they had decided to disband the unit because they had “registered a series of complaints on the human rights record” of the unit. Whilst the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative welcomes the closure of the unit, and applaud the police for taking this action, we join other human rights organisations in calling for an inquiry into the unit. Dissolution of the unit is not enough - independent investigations into the allegations of serious unlawful conduct must be undertaken.
According to some media reports, the police spokesperson stated that, in particular, there had been complaints about how detainees had been treated whilst in police custody. In other words, there have been widespread reports of torture inflicted by members of the RRU.
Specifically, in March of this year, Human Rights Watch released a report detailing allegations of routine torture, extra-judicial killings, forced confessions and theft of goods from detained persons by members of the RRU. Since the unit’s inception, the Uganda Human Rights Commission has repeatedly reported on complaints of torture and unlawful detention.
The notorious unit, originally called Operation Wembley, then the Violent Crime Crack Unit, comprised of soldiers from the Uganda Peoples Defence Force and police officers.
Disturbingly, the RRU was known to be involved in both serious and petty crime investigation and prevention. Involving members of the military in the operations of the police can result in a police force that is overly militarised – with soldiers trained to deal with combat situations being involved in arresting and detaining suspects of crime – and in this case even petty crimes. The army is subject to distinct obligations and procedures, and has different rules relating to arrest, detention and other criminal justice procedures.
The constant allegations of torture, killings and unlawful detention against the RRU exemplify the negative impacts of involving the army in policing matters. The Government of Uganda should undertake a thorough investigation into the workings of the unit, to determine the cause for such a culture of violence and impunity, to enable the government to learn from this in the future.
Furthermore, individual members of the RRU should be brought to account. Torture and murder are extremely serious crimes that are strictly forbidden under Ugandan law. Article 22 of the Constitution of Uganda enshrines the Right to Life, whilst Articles 24 and 44 prohibits any form of torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment, regardless of the circumstances.
As the police know, complaints about a crime must be investigated properly and, where a crime is found to have been committed, the offenders must be identified and prosecuted in accordance with the law. This is the law – it is very simple. By disbanding the RRU and stating that officers will be redeployed or provided with a severance package, there is an insinuation that the closure of the unit will resolve the complaints of serious criminal conduct.
This is not acceptable. It is the responsibility of the government to ensure that the fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution are upheld – that the law is not breached – especially by its own agents. The Government of Uganda must act to ensure independent investigations into all complaints against members of RRU are carried out, and those found to have acted unlawfully must be held to account.
Ms Mount works with Access to Justice Programme (Police Reform), East Africa Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative.