Counter-terrorism and human rights abuses in Kenya and Uganda, says new report

A new 46 page report by the Open Society Justice Initiative that looks at how the governments of Kenya, Uganda, the US and the United Kingdom responded to the 2010 World Cup bombing in Kampala, Uganda says counter-terrorism tactics and operations in East Africa have led to a variety of human rights violations.

Kenyan forces

Furthermore, the report also indicates governments in the region are abusing the need to fight terrorism as an excuse to crack down on political opposition, human rights defenders and lawful expressions of dissent.

The report was written by Jonathan Horowitz, associate legal officer for the Open Society Justice Initiative’s National Security and Counter-terrorism program.

Mr. Horowitz has also worked as a Sudan/Chad analyst at the International Criminal Court, a consultant for Human Rights Watch working on Darfur, Sudan, and a U.N. human rights officer in Sudan from 2005 to 2007.  He holds an LLM in International Human Rights Law from the University of Essex, UK and has published in the American University National Security Law Brief, Yearbook of International Humanitarian Law, the Human Rights Law Brief, and other journals.

With the help of the executive director of the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA), Sierra Leonean born Mr Abdul Tejan-Cole, I was able to connect with Mr. Horowitz to discuss the main findings of the report and some of its recommendations among other things.

The   following interview was conducted via email:

What methodology did the Open Society Justice Initiative used and the length of time it took to compile the report?

The report is based on an analysis of dozens of sworn affidavits from Kenyan, Tanzanian, Ugandan, and United Kingdom legal proceedings. It is also based on interviews with a variety of civil society groups and lawyers; discussions with United States, Kenyan, and Ugandan government officials; and desk research into U.S. and U.K. funding of East African counterterrorism security forces.  In total, the report took several months to research, draft, and publish.

Tell us more about the main findings of your report?

The report found that Kenya and Uganda were willing to commit human rights violations as a means for countering terrorism.  This approach, however, is undermining the rule of law in both countries, provides propaganda for militants, and alienates minority communities who, like the government, want to see an end to terrorism.

The report also documents allegations of detainee abuse that the World Cup bombing suspects made against U.S. officials who were assisting the Ugandans in their investigation of the bombing.

Finally, the report highlights the fact that the United States and United Kingdom are providing substantial support, through training and equipment, to East African security forces. The report calls on both the United States and the United Kingdom to ensure that their support is not used to commit or legitimize human rights abuses in the region.

Based on your findings, you are calling on the governments of Kenya and Uganda to end what you call “a disturbing pattern of human rights abuses associated with their continuing efforts to fight terrorism in the region.” From your perspective, what necessary steps should these governments take to end human rights abuses as alleged in your report?

First and foremost, Kenya and Uganda must realize that fighting terrorism through human rights violations is counterproductive. Simply put, it creates more enemies for the government and enflames the situation. Secondly, rather than ignoring the law and using brute force, Kenya and Uganda should fight terrorism by placing greater importance on professionalizing their security forces, respecting the due process rights of suspects, and building community relationships based on mutual respect.  Thirdly, Kenya and Uganda must hold their officers accountable when they act outside the law and perpetrate human rights violations.

In your report,  you argue that as terrorism concerns in East Africa mount and foreign security assistance to the region continues to grow so too does the risk that more human rights abuses will be committed.  Please expand on your contradiction and argument of “unlawful tactics” that were allegedly used to reduce terrorist violence that may well make the situation worse?

An increase in foreign security assistance to East Africa security forces will result in those security forces being capable of conducting more counterterrorism operations.  However, if these bigger, better equipped forces use unlawful tactics, such as renditions, torture, and denial of fair trials, to fight terrorism, they will actually be undermining their intended goal of providing greater security and stability. This will happen in three ways. Firstly, a strong rule of law is fundamental to any country’s stability, and human rights violations erode the rule of law. In Kenya, many see the human rights abuses associated with counterterrorism operations as a sign that the government is not committed to the new Constitution’s bill of rights.  Secondly, unlawful counterterrorism tactics can lead to social protest and provide propaganda for militants.  Rather than employing a counterterrorism strategy that reduces militancy, a strategy that uses unlawful tactics actually increases the risk of social unrest and militancy. Thirdly, strong government-community relations are a major asset in any government’s fight against terrorism. But when, as is the case in Kenya, security forces indiscriminately target specific communities, such as Muslims or ethnic Somalis, this alienates these communities and makes strong community relationships impossible.

The report issued more recommendations to Uganda (10) than Kenya (8).  Does this mean that Uganda committed the most violations?  Also, what can Western countries including the US and UK do to prevent the continuation of your allegations of human rights violations in the region?

The number of recommendations in the report is not an indication of which country carried out the most, or the fewest, human rights violations.  Every country has an equal responsibility to ensure that its officials are not committing human right abuses and, moreover, that officials are investigated and held accountable when abuses do occur.

Western countries have a responsibility to ensure that their support to foreign security forces is not resulting in,or legitimizing, human rights abuses.  This means that Western countries must know who they are giving their support to and whether or not the recipients have a clean human rights track record. To ensure that donor governments are acting responsibly, donor governments should be more transparent and public about who is receiving their support. This is particularly true to the United Kingdom, which is extremely opaque about its foreign counterterrorism security assistance.

A Final Report of the Task Force on Legal Cooperation Against Terrorism in the IGAD Sub-Region in May 2012 indicates the East African Community lacks a formal counterterrorism legislative framework –a rule of law based framework that guides law enforcement and judicial practice, ensures accountability, and safeguards against political influence.  How does this lack of legal infrastructure impact your findings?

Anti-terrorism legislation, whether domestic or regional, must be approached with great care and caution, as the report notes.  The benefits that purportedly come from anti-terrorism legislation are too often outweighed by the damages they cause.  There are several human rights pitfalls to look out for. Often, anti-terrorism legislation is a tool to legalize State actions that would otherwise be unlawful, such as prolonged periods of detention without charge or trial, lowering standards of evidence, or placing rigid limitations on freedom of expression and assembly.  Also, anti-terrorism legislation provides definitions of “terrorism” that are overly broad and vague. This makes the law susceptible for abuse by governments that may want to attack political opponents or specific minority communities.

© 2012, Dennis Kabatto. All rights reserved. – The views expressed here are purely those of the author and not necessarily those of the publishers. – Newstime Africa content cannot be reproduced in any form – electronic or print – without prior consent of the Publishers. Copyright infringement will be pursued and perpetrators prosecuted.

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