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BLOG: Policing with Human Rights - promoting peaceful and inclusive societies

last modified Feb 06, 2018 05:23 PM
Read the blog article written by Genevieve Riccoboni, MPhil in World History, member of the CGHR student group.

On January 18 this CGHR panel discussion brought international experts from the United Nations into conversation with academics based in Cambridge and elsewhere to explore the role of police, the act of policing, and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). 

Policing has long been the subject of political contestation, but interest in police and criminal justice reform has recently become particularly pronounced. In numerous countries, police brutality and violence have come to the forefront of debates about civil and human rights, so the key question is: how can governments, NGOs, activists, or academics help ensure that law enforcement is actually protecting the rights of the communities they serve, rather than abusing them? On the 16th of January 2018, the Cambridge Centre of Governance and Human Rights hosted an event titled, “Policing with Human Rights”, which addressed this very question. Moderated by the CGHR’s own Thomas Probert, it featured a distinguished panel of Christof Heyns, Anneke Osse, and Stuart Maslen, who contributed different perspectives on the relationship between policing and human rights to an audience of students and academics. Although the presentations varied in their scope and analysis of specific case studies, they deeply interrogated the core purposes of policing and addressed two broad themes: mechanisms of police accountability and relationships between the police and citizens.

Christof Heyns presented on his experiences as the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions, where he worked on several projects relating to law enforcement and use of force. An important part of this role involved assessing the extent to which police complied with international standards and domestic laws, which Heyns found to sometimes be a complex and difficult task. For example, it was difficult at times for the UN to ascertain what laws already existed regarding police use of force and violence, making it difficult to enforce these laws, determine how well they were being followed, and hold individuals accountable. Regardless of these difficulties, Heyns emphasised that the state, and thus the police, has multiple responsibilities. There is not only the duty to respect and protect the rights of citizens and investigate crimes, but to also consider other rights. Therefore, any conversation about law must be accompanied by a broader rights framework.

This discussion neatly dovetailed into a presentation by the second panelist, Anneke Osse, an independent consultant on policing and police reform. Osse presented the case of Kenya, which has seen significant, nearly-constant reform in policing in the past decade. She argued that police reform largely emerged out of the context of 2007-08 post-election violence, when law enforcement was extensively criticised. The police failed to act on intelligence that predicted violence, and actually participated in the brutality themselves. Osse went on to describe the post-violence investigative commission, ensuing reforms, and the later debates about formalising reform within the new constitution of 2010. Her conclusion was that although substantial reform has certainly occurred, there is still a great gap between reality and the aims of human rights groups.

Stuart Maslen concluded the panel discussion by highlighting weaponry, equipment, and the construction of police narratives around the use of force. He claimed that it is crucial to target equipment carefully in order to prevent human rights abuses; too often, police are equipped with batons or assault rifles, both of which provoke particular kinds of popular responses to policing. In the UK, tasers are the most common form of weapon used; whereas in the US, military surplus material is given to police officers to use in routine policing. Maslen noted that although cops need protective equipment so that they do not feel threatened (and justify lashing out against lay citizens), riot gear and similar items often precipitate contradictory responses, sometimes causing while at other times lessening tension. He concluded that careful planning and situational knowledge is crucial in order to make policing more effective and equitable.

Many questions were posed by the audience, particularly relating to issues of the universality of policing practices and the future of policing. One audience member asked if it is possible to have a blanket approach to policing throughout the world, given that people have different historical relationships with the police and that there are significant cultural differences. Heyns and Osse both emphasised that it is important to have grassroots approaches to law enforcement - in some contexts, the police can be seen as an immediate threat. Another question probed even deeper into this aspect, asking how it is possible to reform policing when violence can be seen as the “natural end” of systemic injustice. Since there are so many flaws with policing in the status quo, this question is a particularly pertinent one. Many communities have incredibly fraught relationships with the police, due to historical injustices at the hands of law enforcement and systemic discrimination in policing praxis. In these contexts, can the police actually be “reformed”? And what would a “good” policing system look like? These questions will likely remain unanswered for a long while, but panels such as these deepen and perpetuate the conversation on law enforcement - hopefully getting us closer to a just model for protecting communities.


Policing with HR


Christof Heyns is a member of the UN Human Rights Committee and Professor of Human Rights Law at the University of Pretoria, where he directs the Institute for International and Comparative Law in Africa. From 2010-2016 he served as UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, and in 2016 he also served as Chair of the UN Independent Investigation into Burundi.

Anneke Osse is an independent consultant who has worked around the world on issues of policing and human rights. She has worked as a consultant for a range of organizations, including the UN, OSCE , international NGOs as well as for the police. She was recently the lead author of the Resource Book on the Use of Force and Firearms in Law Enforcement (2017) published jointly by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. She is in the exploratory stages of a new international collaboration aimed at monitoring the use of lethal force by police officers around the world.

Stuart Maslen is an Honorary Professor at the University of Pretoria, and specialises in the use of force under international law. He holds a doctorate in international humanitarian law as well as master’s degrees in international human rights law and in forensic ballistics. He recently co-authored a commentary on the Arms Trade Treaty, published by OUP in 2016, and on police use of force under international law, published by Cambridge University Press in 2017.


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