By Irene Gaitirira and Human Rights Watch Press
Published January 21, 2016
The Government of Uganda should suspend the crime preventer programme ahead of the February 18, 2016 national elections.
Referring to ‘Crime preventers’ as a largely unregulated force that threatens election security, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Network Uganda (HURINET-U), Chapter Four Uganda, and Foundation for Human Rights Initiative (FHRI) are appealing to Uganda to suspend the group.
Crime preventers are a volunteer force of civilians recruited and managed by police to report on and prevent crime in cooperation with the police and communities. However, crime preventers, who are seen as being affiliated with the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) party, have acted in partisan ways and carried out brutal assault and extortion with no accountability, the organisations say.
“Using volunteer or reserve forces to complement community policing is not a new or inherently bad concept, but these forces need to be regulated, impartial, effectively trained, and held accountable to the highest standards if they take on policing functions,” says Maria Burnett, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Crime preventers should not be undisciplined and unaccountable recruits who become the eyes and muscle of the ruling party in every village.”
Suspending crime preventers is critical for preventing violence during the electoral period and showing the country’s commitment to non-partisan policing and respect for human rights, the rights organisations say.
Scant information is available about the exact mandate, command structure, and number of crime preventers, and there is no legal statute establishing the programme. Although the government has said that a bill will soon be brought to Parliament, there is insufficient time before the elections for Parliament to adequately debate such a law and for the government to implement it appropriately, the groups say.
Official statements indicate that the programme is vast and that recruitment rapidly increased in the months leading up to the official start of the presidential campaign period in November 2015.
Officials have said that police aim to have at least 30 crime preventers per village, which would total more than 1 million people throughout the country. President Yoweri Museveni and other senior government officials were photographed in 2015 at several graduation ceremonies for people who completed a training programme, and they are quoted as saying that hundreds of thousands of people have been trained.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch interviewed 20 crime preventers and more than 120 people familiar with or affected by their operations say the crime preventers’ actions are frequently both unlawful and partisan, aimed at intimidating or reducing support for the political opposition.
The police say that crime preventer recruits are trained in self-defense, ideology, patriotism, and crime prevention techniques. One crime preventer training manual seen by Human Rights Watch states they should report to police “any crime which is about to be committed or has been committed within their area [by] picking information…in public places, burials, weddings, bars or anywhere you can get rumors.” It urges crime preventers to “do your work secretly,” and “don’t advertise yourself as a crime preventer because even the one you are investigating can turn against you.”
Uganda’s Inspector General told Amnesty International, “[Crime preventers] are my CCTV [closed circuit television].”
Under international human rights law, the Ugandan government is responsible for the actions of those it empowers to act on its behalf. Authorizing a force to operate without proper legal basis or accountability violates its basic obligations to respect and protect fundamental human rights.
“Ugandans deserve an adequately trained police force that will be held to account for their conduct,” says Muthoni Wanyeki, regional director of East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes at Amnesty International. “Elections are a critical and vulnerable time for the country and there should be no room for partisan policing. The lack of a clear legal basis for the crime preventers program and the unlawful activities they are carrying out could jeopardize Uganda’s ability to have a safe electoral period.”