International human rights law is binding on all States and it is incumbent upon the States to ensure the protection and promotion of all human rights. Under international human rights law, the obligations of States involve the duty to respect, protect and fulfil human rights obligations and ensure non-discrimination[i]. This signifies that the State should refrain from interfering with the enjoyment of human rights, prevent others from interfering with the enjoyment of said rights, and adopt appropriate measures towards the realization of same. Police and other security operations as law enforcement officials form one group of State actors who are expected to observe these State obligations under international law. The rule of law is the foundation of the protection of human rights which begins with the adaptation of national legislation to acceptable human rights standards. Key institutions such as the police and army represent the responsibility of the State to uphold this rule of law.
Law enforcement officials are an important element of the promotion and protection of human rights in any given State. Not only are they required to actively put an end to situations of abuse of human rights, they also have the duty to investigate human rights abuses and to seek justice for the victims. Although they are often heavily criticized for violations of which they may be guilty, they are also the source of solutions as one of their primary functions is to guarantee the rights of every individual. They also play an important role in the justice system; when violations occur, they initiate and conduct investigations and sometimes have to implement judgements taken against perpetrators of human rights violations.
Law enforcement officers ensure security and public order; their mission is to prevent the commission of offences and violations of the rights of persons. The judiciary and law enforcement ensure the compliance of the law and work to guard the rights, integrity and property of individuals. They carry out investigations to verify violations of human rights and can perform arrests and detentions where possible to serve the purpose of justice.
Law enforcement officials are a key factor in the administration of justice. Their work encompasses preventive and protective roles in the course of maintaining law and order. They could play a positive role in the protection of human rights in the following ways:
- contribute to the liberty, equality and fraternity in human affairs;
- reconcile freedom with security and uphold the rule of law;
- uphold and protect human rights of the citizens;
- build up the faith of the people in their protection of human rights by the State;
- investigate, detect and prevent offences; and
- understand the human rights in true spirit and uphold them[ii].
However, in most parts of the world, law enforcement officials also demonstrate the most obvious disregard for human rights. The most flagrant cases of torture for example take place while the victims are under police custody or whilst being incarcerated in prisons. Everyone has the responsibility to uphold the rule of law and this does not exclude State agents like the police or military. At all times, they have the responsibility to uphold necessary human rights standards except in certain situations provided for by the law. Factors such as corruption, impunity and lack of accountability contribute to police and military abuse where there is a lack of adequate safeguards to check human rights violations from legal mechanisms.
In the light of recent events in Cameroon on the 1st of October 2017, there have been allegations of misconduct and arbitrary killing of peaceful protesters in various places in the South-West and North-West regions of Cameroon, protesting the ill treatment of the anglophone minority in Cameroon. There are also allegations of military persons breaking and entering houses and assaulting persons amongst other things. Situations like these may cause one to ask the question to know if the notion of human rights which the police and military have is different from what everyone else believes them to be. They are most prone to trampling upon human rights. This usually demonstrates a poor understanding of human rights standards and their implementation especially in situations of emergency. Even though limitations to certain human rights are possible, they are only permissible by the limitations specified within the right itself, by law or in times of emergency. Any use of power or authority by State agents must pass the tests of legality, necessity, proportionality and accountability.
For the fundamental role law enforcement officials play in the protection and promotion of human rights to be evident, it is the duty of the State to seek solutions to the problem of human rights abuses by these legal mechanisms, to check irresponsible actions and impunity. This could be by setting up a system, which holds every agent accountable for their actions, in normal times or in times of crises. The State also has the duty to prevent violations perpetrated by their agents by ensuring that they have a good grasp of both national laws and international laws. They also need to acquire and maintain skills and techniques to ensure an adequate and constant application of requirements laid down by law to be able to respect and protect individual rights and freedoms[iii].
[i] OHCHR. 2004. Human Rights Standards and Practice for the Police. United Nations Publication
[ii] CLEEN Foundation. 2009. Review of the Nigerian Police Act, 1943. Cleen Foundation
[iii] ICRC. 2014. To Serve and Protect. Human Rights and Humanitarian Law for Police and Security Forces. ICRC Publication