Liberia’s state of emergency: Role of security officers

Attorney Kelley opines that the fundamental human rights of Liberian citizens must be protected in line with the constitution

By Atty. Bowoulo T. Kelley

The novel coronavirus plagued the world so swiftly that it was described by the head of the World Health Organization Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus as ‘an unprecedented outbreak that had met an unprecedented response’, as the virus continued to spread around the globe with an increase in the number of confirmed cases in Liberia.

In an effort to limit further spread of the virus, a state of emergency was declared in Liberia pursuant to Article 85-88 of the constitution, which gives power to the president to declare a state of emergency, when there is a threat of danger on the nation as it is with this global health pandemic.

President George Weah’s decision ordering citizens to abide by the health protocols is consistent with Section 14.2 of the Public Health Law of 1976 which, among other things, calls for stringent measures limiting the movement of citizens, ‘[w]henever any part of the Republic appears to be threatened by any formidable epidemic, endemic or communicable disease’.

This declaration was supplemented with a mandate given to the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) to lead the enforcement effort in terms of curtailing the coronavirus from further spread.

Mandate of this nature, which delegates police function to a military, must be intelligible and precise.

The role of the AFL must be clearly defined in terms of what is expected of the army during the period of emergency, specifically when paramilitary security apparatuses are expected to be part of the operations. These measures must be aimed at ensuring accountability, upholding the principle of legality and the rule of law. The objective must be the protection of the citizens and residents.

Two counties, Monsterrado and Nimba have so far been highly hit. Restrictions in the two appear to be more rigorous because majority of the cases confirmed originated from there. This has necessitated a decision whereby movements from these two counties to the rest of the 13 counties are strictly prohibited.

As part of the strategy, the government enunciated social distancing mechanism, prohibition (later relaxation) of church and mosque services, and the gathering of more than 10 persons at the same time, all directed towards preventing the spread of the virus.

However, there is one specific provision of the strategy of preventive mechanism that is ambiguous, needing further clarification, and restraining citizens’ movement by allowing one individual per household to specifically go out for one hour only, for the purpose of getting essentials goods like food items or medical related issues.

How this is to be enforced leaves one to wonder. The pronouncement is ambiguous and presents a situation that is not reasonable. It leaves room for law enforcement officers to exercise their discretion to the susceptibility of the civilian population during the state of emergency and contravenes the principle of providing specific measures prior to the derogation which is required by the demands of the situation, in this case to prevent the spread of Covid 19 in Liberia.

There has always been skepticism in Liberia whenever a state of emergency is declared. Usually, during these periods state security take advantage of the situation to commit human rights violations under the pretext of supposedly enforcing the mandate of the emergency.

In addition, whenever a state of emergency is declared, as the previous cases, the legislature who has the constitutional responsibilities to modify the decision of the President often failed to spell out those rights are suspended under the emergency. Such blanket derogation gives enough room for the state security to exercise powers that violate rights; for example, the prohibition of arbitrary detention, torture, and violation of the right to life.

It can be recalled that at the height of the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) crisis in 2014, the AFL was mandated to enforce similar orders when a state of emergency was declared to stop the virus from spreading.

It was during that time that officers of the AFL fired live bullets to disperse a protesting crowd. In the event of the shooting, Shaki Kamara, 15 years old, died in the township of West point in Monrovia.

The protest emanated from the quarantine measures put in place by the Government without other livelihood measures. That period is analogous to this time looking at the facts and circumstances explicitly on how security forces responded to the health emergency then, and their response now with alleged reports of brutality from security forces since the coming into effect of the present state of emergency.

The state security is under obligation to ensure that the fundamental human rights of the citizens are protected in line with the constitution and other international human rights treaties that Liberia has ratified.

Let it be known that the paramount reason for this state of emergency is to prevent further spread of the deadly coronavirus, hence the real enemy here is coronavirus and not the citizens who should be protected from all forms of violence.

Considering these experiences, the following are hereby recommended to avert the abuse of power by the security forces during this period:

A) That the state revisits its position on the ‘one man per house rule’ during this period and encourage social distancing as much as possible. While it is true that it is important to maintain social distancing, the state security forces should perform their duties within the confines of the law and refrain from taking the matters in their hands.

B) That the state prohibits the inclusion of undocumented or irregular paramilitary organs from performing duties as national law enforcement officers. (e.g. Boys scouts, communities watch teams etc.) to ensure accountability and build public trust and confidence in the security sector during this period of emergency.

C) That the government ensures that those charged with enforcing the health protocols during this period respect the rule of law and human rights, and refrain from using corporal punishment such as whips or other deadly weapons on citizens coming in conflict with the law, and should instead utilized the court since judicial bodies are available to address situation of contraventions of the state of emergency.

Atty. Bowoulo T. Kelley is managing partner at the Judicial Advocates for Law and Honor (JALAH) Law Firm in Liberia. She is currently studying human rights and democratisation at the Africa Centre For Human Rights at the University of Pretoria in South Africa.