“Police reform in South Asia is too important to neglect and too urgent to delay”, concludes a
recently published report
By Asad Jamal
“Feudal Forces: Democratic Nations — Police Accountability in Commonwealth South Asia”, is a study by Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), an international non-governmental organisation dedicated to ‘the practical realisation of human rights in the countries of the Commonwealth’.
The study mainly focuses on the mechanism of accountability of police in legal frameworks in five South Asian countries of Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Maldives (Commonwealth South Asia).
Transparency, accountability and democratic participation are the three major strands that make the present day society work in an efficient and just manner. Among these three fundamental requisites, reliable processes of accountability make the police a public service in the real sense. The need to reform the police and develop strong accountability mechanisms arises in view of the public experience of policing in the Commonwealth South Asia, as the CHRI study points out: “Public experiences of policing show that police are more often characterised by violations of laws and individual rights rather than protection of them. From murders, to torture, disappearances, excessive use of force, failure to follow due process, biased policing, to corruption — the list of violations committed by the police is endless.”
The reasons for this continuing saga are many including impunity or safety from punishment provided under law to errant police, legal and institutional impunity, protection from prosecution under ordinary law, special or emergency laws, specific indemnity laws passed to condone past acts retrospectively, institutionalised procedural techniques for impunity, political interference, militarisation of police and support for tough policing under circumstances of increasing violent crime — and a lack of accountability.
Intriguingly, there exists a remarkably similar pattern of these trends in South Asian countries. A public perception survey conducted by Transparency International has indicated that people in the region see police as the most corrupt of seven basic public services. The police in South Asia follow the regime style model which serves the government of the day.
The CHRI report gives an overview of available accountability mechanisms or the lack thereof in the Police laws in the Commonwealth South Asia, and highlights internationally established principles to improve them. It notes that the existing policing models in these countries have their foundations in colonial era and the ruling elites have kept these models largely and essentially intact. The study records several instances in the five countries when initiatives were taken for improving the legal frameworks and put them in practice but were made to fail by the vested interest on one pretext or the other. For example, India has witnessed several initiatives to reform the police including setting up various commissions at the state/provincial as well as union/federal level. However recommendations by such commissions have never been implemented.
In Pakistan, a number of commissions (the report enumerates seven of them) have recommended police reforms. No serious effort was made to implement any one of them till 2002 when the new Police Order with a number of new features replaced the colonial Police Act of 1861. However, this has also met with strong resistance from the vested interest. The authors of the report are of the view that “the new law puts in place mechanisms and processes to institutionalise police reform by checking political interference with police functioning and ensuring accountability for performance and misconduct.”
However, the effort aimed at reform was resisted by the provincial governments on the pretext of invasion by the federal government into the provincial domain thus derailing the process. Several amendments were made to dilute the intent of the original law. The contrast in the two examples of India and Pakistan is ostensibly stark. At first, it seems that while even a continued democratic process has not ensured people friendly police in India; an unrepresentative regime in Pakistan did at least replace the colonial law governing the police.
An interesting observation made by a delegate in a regional conference and quoted in the report is relevant: “…while democratic governments in South Asia were resistant or slow to reform, governments that were not chosen by popular mandate (the military dictatorship in Pakistan and the caretaker government in Bangladesh) were more willing to put in place police and other administrative reforms. It was suggested that it was an attempt to gain legitimacy.”
The report points out that the push for police reform in Pakistan came from international donors, in this instance the Asian Development Bank, and coincided with the military regime’s desperate need to get international legitimacy. Reform without public debate leads to a situation in which people remain alienated from the process, and the entrenched vested interest can easily sabotage any such effort. Democracy, therefore, is an essential condition for reform, but, as the Indian case highlights, is not sufficient. Several other factors, political and social, may also play a role.
The study makes several recommendations for police reform. Some of the important reforms (such as in case of Pakistan the Police Complaints Authority and Public Safety Commissions as originally envisaged in the Police Order, 2000) aimed at enhancing police accountability in South Asia have been discussed at length. Considerable space has been allocated in the report to possible mechanisms of oversight and accountability such as the Parliamentary and judicial oversight of the police. It is pointed out that the existing internal disciplinary systems, created in the colonial era, are non-transparent with no space for the complainant to play his/her due role, and are used as a tool to keep the police officials in line with government policy.
The best accountability systems incorporate independent external accountability mechanisms with a strong internal system to address internal breaches of discipline. Only a democratic police can give a break from the ‘regime police’ meant to serve the vested interest. Democratic police is accountable to the law, and democratic government structures, and creates a security environment which best promotes democracy. It communicates with and serves the public in a transparent manner.
The authors are of the opinion that South Asian countries must all ratify international human rights treaties and affirm compliance with the standards of policing required by International Bill of Rights, and review police laws, rules and regulations, especially those pre-dating the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in view of the UN Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials, and the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms. The report also recommends that the South Asian states must promote and strengthen institutions such as human rights commissions and ombudsman’s office and involve citizens by introducing the concepts of community policing. “Police reform in South Asia is too important to neglect and too urgent to delay”, concludes the report.
(The CHRI report can be accessed at http://humanrightsinitiative.org