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Violent protests and use of force

26 Jan 2019 at 17:11hrs | Views
REFLECTING on the tumultuous events of the past week makes one realise how so much can go so wrong in a very short time. What was touted as a shutdown/stayaway to protest the surprise 150% hike in fuel prices turned out to be a nationwide orgy of violence, looting and arson. The police reported that in some instances they were overpowered by protesters who ran them down and burnt police stations and vehicles.

In Bulawayo, one policeman was even killed by marauding protesters. The military swiftly moved-in in scenes reminiscent of the August 1 2018 political demonstrations that ended with the fatal shooting of six people. What do international laws prescribe about using live ammunition to control violent protesters? Are there situations when the law allows the shooting of protesters if their violence reaches crisis proportions as it did on Monday the 14th?

Section 59 of the Zimbabwe Constitution guarantees the right to demonstrate and to present petitions. The only condition is that the right has to be exercised peacefully. The Public Order Security Act chapter amended in 2007 further qualifies that right. Having established the right, the question is, what happens when demonstrations turn violent and pose a danger to life and property?

There was massive looting, arson, stoning and burning of cars and beating up of people who wanted to exercise their own freedoms. Violent criminal gangs took over most urban high-density areas looting, burning tyres, barricading roads and traumatising motorists. Some were forced to pay toll fees before they could be allowed to proceed.

The right to life is also guaranteed but can it be taken away when people get out of control in the interests of restoring law and order? Chapter 37 of the Public Order & Security Act allows deployment of the military to augment the police when they are overwhelmed. The commissioner of police can request assistance from the defence forces if there is need such as when the police are overwhelmed and in danger themselves. When soldiers are so deployed they have to be under police direction. It is actually not a question of military involvement but the level of involvement and level of force that can be used on civilians.

The ongoing violent protests in France between the Yellow Vests movement and police provide an instructive example of violent protests management. Ten people have died to date in associated accidents caused by the blockage of roads. There has been looting and vandalism of luxury shops and homes and burning of cars. Protesters largely refrained from looting and burning shops and homes in the poorer neighbourhoods where they live. This is quite different from what happened here because people destroyed their own shops and tuckshops where they expected to buy from the next day. In Bulawayo's western suburbs, the situation is so bad that people now have to travel to town and other areas to buy basic provisions and prices have even risen further.

In 2006, the Israeli Supreme Court approved the use of live bullets on protesting Palestinian civilians. Shooting at civilians breaches international military law but the Israeli court still went on to rule in spite of great international condemnation that there are situations when it is justified to shoot civilians. Writing in The Jerusalem newspaper on May 30 2018, Jewish reporter Yifa Segal criticised what he called misinformed criticism by human rights practitioners.

He said international law is not breached merely by soldiers shooting at civilians arguing that the Palestinians who were shot were to blame because many of them were terrorists and so they deserved it. He said every country has its own laws to deal with conflict and has the right to defend itself from internal and external threats.

According to this thinking, civilians could be shot at if they were deemed to be a threat to national security. Even if that argument is taken it is far-fetched to suggest that the local demonstrators, even though they turned violent, could have intended to and managed to overthrow the government. While the security forces were justified to use force in some cases, the force used was excessive.

Segal makes an important point that there is a distinction between combatants and citizens. He accused Palestinian protesters of being under cover terrorists who regularly sneak into Israel with weapons to cause instability.

According to this view, civilians who turn rogue against the State should not expect to be treated with kid gloves because security forces have a duty to protect a country from both internal and external threats. For the longest time since the Robert Mugabe era government has always accused protesters of trying to overthrow it.

In this country for as long as Zanu-PF is in power protesters are always going to be regarded as terrorists on a covert mission to overthrow it. It will be foolhardy for protesters to think otherwise although to its credit the government has allowed peaceful demonstrations against it the last being the MDC protest in November 2018. The prevailing political discontent and sustained grumblings about the government's legitimacy only makes the suspicion and paranoia worse.

Segal refers to international guidelines which classify citizens and combatants. He argues that civilians lose the protection that is ordinarily accorded ordinary civilians if they turn themselves into combatants in disguise.

When it has been established that civilians have turned into combatants, there is no obligation on the State to stave them off using live force. The military will be justified to react swiftly to defend the country in order to avoid endangering the whole population.

There are international conventions on the use of force and firearms such as The Basic Principles on the use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Agencies adopted by the eighth United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and Treatment of Offenders in Havana, Cuba in 1990.

It provides guidelines and general provisions aimed at safeguarding civilians and security forces themselves.

Miriam Tose Majome is the legal officer for Veritas and she writes in her personal capacity. She can be contacted on

Source - newsday
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