Amnesty International reports that in Africa in 2017 and 2018, “intolerance of peaceful dissent and an entrenched disregard for the right to freedom of peaceful assembly” had become all too commonplace. This includes arresting as well as beating and sometimes even killing, peaceful protestors. They also note that “these trends occurred within a context of slow and intermittent success in reducing poverty.”
Within the past two years, Angola, Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Ethiopia, Sudan and Togo all undertook measures that restricted or banned peaceful protests. All of these countries have poverty rates more than 30 percent, with the Democratic Republic of the Congo having the highest rate at 63 percent.
The restriction of peaceful protests does not always violate human rights, but law enforcement personnel sometimes resort to extreme measures to crack down on protesters. In Togo, a crackdown by security forces, which involved beatings and the firing of tear gas and ammunition at protestors, resulted in the deaths of 10 individuals, including three children.
Of course, protestors are not the only individuals suffering from human rights violations committed by law enforcement. Such violations can occur while an individual is being detained in jail, in their home or on the street. One of the largest barriers of bringing perpetrators to justice, however, is the inability to identify them. In fact, many victims of human rights abuses do not know the names of those who violated their rights, making it nearly impossible to develop a legal case. Even when perpetrators are identified, sometimes they are moved around to prevent prosecution.
In 2016, a 12-year-old was detained, tortured and left almost paralyzed by security force officers in Nigeria. His lawyer, Chino Edmund Obiagwu, who is also the director of the Legal Defense and Assistance Project in Nigeria, would have been unable to cite the officers because he could not have access information on their names if it had not been for the work of provided by the WhoWasInCommand.
In response to difficulties in identifying law enforcement personnel who violate human rights, Tony Wilson, the director of Security Force Monitor, a project of Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute, started the website WhoWasInCommand in June 2017. The site publishes data on law enforcement, including names, ranks, commanders, location, history of service and previous allegations held against them.
Security Force Monitor was created to support researchers, investigative journalists and litigators that work specifically on human rights violations. Those behind the project believe that it is important to hold security force officials accountable for their actions, but also recognize that, as data on these groups is generally decentralized, difficult to locate and sometimes costly, individual lawyers or victims often do not have the resources to access it. The Security Force Monitor team analyzes thousands of public records to provide relevant information on WhoWasInCommand about law enforcement officials.
Initially, WhoWasInCommand only included research on Mexico, Nigeria and Egypt, but as of October 2018, six new countries have been added, including Bangladesh, Myanmar, Philippines, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia and Uganda, making the site the largest public database on security forces in the world. Countries are chosen based on the existence of longstanding concerns about human rights abuses by law enforcement as well as the consistent inability of lawyers and journalists to identify perpetrators in those areas.
In addition to the assistance the Security Force Monitor is providing, there have been some successes in cracking down on human rights violations through legislation. Nigeria passed an Anti-Torture Bill in December 2017, Burkina Faso’s has committed to increasing human rights protections in their draft Constitution, the Gambia pledged to abolish the death penalty and Kenya decided not to close a refugee camp that houses over a quarter of a million Somali refugees who could not return home without the risk of violence and abuse. While progress is slow, small victories such as these are not inconsequential, but are, in fact, an essential step in ensuring human rights across the globe.
As WhoWasInCommand continues to grow, hopefully, there will be a notable increase in successful prosecutions of law enforcement personnel who commit human rights violations. A researcher at Amnesty International, Aster van Kregten, expressed hope that nations may eventually begin freely contributing information about security forces, making a site like WhoWasInCommand unnecessary. Governments also need to continue to pass laws that ensure the protection of human rights for all individuals.
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