Liberians: Should We Continue to Live with Correctable Challenges?
By David K. Dahn
Prior to the much heralded January 6, 2020 protest, under the aegis of the Council of Patriots(COP), debate swayed across the nation between negotiators and leadership of the COP, among other things, regarding the constitutionality and legality of the protest, the issues of security, timeline, venue, structure of the protest and trekking routes. This was a day less than seven months when the last biggest peaceful protest (June 7, 2019 “ Save the State”, recorded under the Coalition for Democratic Change(CDC) led Administration) was professionally managed by the Liberian National Police(LNP) in the context of law enforcement.
I had thought that the prior writings and echoes of protest were enough for any government, with skillfulness of negotiation at its command, to have made use of what Roger Fisher et al(1991:97) refer to as the best alternative to a negotiated agreement, to thwart the forewarned protest.
Take it or leave it, had we as a nation put aside our personal and deliberate pride for once and made way for what the diplomat would call ‘etat priority'(State Priority), the protest could have been, in my view, avoided quietly under a win-win style of negotiation. Then came Monday, January 6, 2020 and boom! the top went off and reality steamed up. Barely, the dust had settled on the protest grounds when the debate shifted to the conduct of Liberia National Police- accusations of the use of “force and or the use of excessive force” for the dispersal of protesters.
A national journalist had argued very articulately in his agenda setting role that “there is so far no evidence of death, broken parts, abrasion (scratch), or laceration (cut) of any protester to constitute the accusation of the “use of force and or excessive force” by the police. This is where my attention was drawn. The argument of this paper therefore, is not to justify or counter balance the accusation against the police. Instead, the path of this conversation is to share information with my media colleagues( for the humbled ones) and the non-security personnel out there in a limited way regarding their understanding of what is force within the security context, what constitutes the use of force, what is proportional force, what is reasonable force and what is excessive force.
What is Force?
In his work, Restructuring National Security (2000: 48), Lieutenant General Ashok Joshi(retired), quoting Dennis H. Wrong, writes: “Force refers most commonly to physical or biological force: the creation of physical obstacles restricting the freedom of another, the infliction of bodily pain or injury including the destruction of life itself, and the frustration of basic biological needs…Force involves treating a human subject as if he were no more than a physical object, or at most a biological organism vulnerable to pain and the impairment of its life-processes.
The ultimate form of force is violence: direct assault upon the body of another in order to inflict pain, injury or death.” General Joshi notes additionally that “Physical imposition of constraints and restraints on humans with a view to denying them liberty and basic human rights is a less violent form of force.” As elaborated upon further, physical force is insensible of human attributes and values, it is just as effective against the guilty as against the innocent and has the capacity to set back human civilization unlike other instruments of power (Joshi 2000:50).
The Use of Force:
The use of force, in the context of law enforcement, is defined as the “amount of effort required by police to compel compliance by an unwilling subject” (The National Institute of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, retrieved January 9, 2020). It must be further asserted that the level or continuum of force use can be basic verbal (verbalization), physical restraint, less lethal force and lethal force (ibid).
In his work, “Principles of Law Enforcement”, Sir Robert Peel, asserts that “Police use physical force to the extent necessary to secure observance of the law or to restore order only when the exercise of persuasion, advice and warning is found to be insufficient”(Https://nij.ojp.gov). An official website of the US Government, Department of Justice, proffers that “Broadly speaking, the use of force by law enforcement officers becomes necessary and is permitted under specific circumstances, such as in self-defense or in defense of another individual or group”(ibid).
Proportional Use of Force:
Please permit the use of this distractive anecdote. An ant bites a man and in his fury uses a sledge hammer to kill the ant. Do you really think the man needs such level of force against the hypothetical ant no matter the degree of bite?
The notable point being stressed is that action taken must be proportionate (balanced, fair, impartial) to the threat in all circumstances. Subject matter experts have argued that an option is unlikely to be regarded as proportionate where a less injurious, but equally effective alternative exists. The critical piece is that the amount of force used must be minimum required to achieve the lawful objective (https://www.amnesty.org.uk).
The Use of Reasonable Force:
A man attempts to snatch your cell phone and you foil the attempt with two quick slaps which carry the snatcher tumbling on his face and that closes the encounters without further action. Explicitly, reasonable force refers to the amount of force necessary to protect oneself or property from a violent attack, theft, or other type of unlawful aggression (https://legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com). However, Joshua Rozenberg, legal editor of The Telegraph newspaper, notes that there is no easy definition of what force is reasonable on grounds that it is a matter to be decided in each individual case. He adds, self-defense is governed by the common law-the accumulated wisdom of the courts as expressed in decided cases (https://www.telegraph.co.uk).
The Use of Excessive Force:
Come to think about this summarily. Given a hypothetical situation, a man was tied with a cord and flogged by a law enforcer. Assuming that the man came into serious breach or conflict with the law, the fact that he’s tied with a cord tamed him to submission. Does he deserve been flogged further? Or a riotous individual escapes from a law enforcer, while escaping, he’s then shot upon from his back. In a more elevated manner, excessive force refers to a situation where government official legally entitled to use force exceed the minimum amount necessary to diffuse an incident or to protect themselves or others from harm (https://criminal.findlaw.com).
The Thoughtful Questions:
If I may ask from the stance of John Rawls’ veil of ignorance, what was the intent of the protesters to have taken assorted cooking utensils to the Capitol Hill? Did the security (police) forewarn the protesters at any given recorded period during the protest planning for nearly seven months to not take cooking utensils up Capitol Hill? Further, what items, under the canopy of public safety were forbidden from the protest grounds? Did the police disperse the protesters on grounds of suspicions of threat to critical installations, on the basis of crow’s behavior and actions, in the light of their motives, or according to their identity as “COP protesters”? Questions like these could linger unanswered or be ambiguously answered depending on which side one stands. But the Prophet Mohammed says, “It is only intention that determines the value of any action.”
There is need to break with the “age old Liberian style” of conducting business as usual whereby we spend wasted time responding to and giving names to people who genuinely raise critical national issues rather than addressing the critical issue itself. Whether security actors, public officials or ‘opposition’, we are all Liberian first.
Therefore, the onus is on all of us to realistically separate peoples’ affiliation, orientation or title from Liberia’s existing national problems which are not myth but real. From the lenses of optimism, we can rebuild, in the words of President William Richard Tolbert, Jr., a ‘wholesome functioning Liberian society’ as a people by seeking visional solutions to our existing social, political and economic challenges. This cannot be done, in my humbled opinion, by opening mere ‘Talk Shops’ through leaders or policy makers who effectively leverage the mass media using press conferences and radio talk shows to impress upon those who believe in them under the masquerade of being call ‘intellectual celebrities’.
Viewing through human rights protection and promotion lenses, lest I forget, the doctrine of accountability obliges duty-bearers to be liable to rights holders. Accountability has a concomitant of three elements: responsibility that borders on the transparent and objective assessment of the behavior of those in position of authority. Answerability which requires officials and institutions to provide reasoned justifications for their actions and decisions to those they affect. And, Enforcement, which calls for putting mechanisms in place to monitor the degree to which officials and institutions comply with established standards.
Through rigorous reforms our international partners invested hugely in Liberia’s post-war security sector. Our security actors, particularly at the level of law enforcement, have to take advantage of every available opportunity to either distinguish themselves as belonging to the new breed of democratic actors in the security sector or define themselves as reincarnate of the tainted old order of security actors.
Finally, the contending question of this article is, if action replaces rhetoric, love replaces hate, selflessness replaces greed, and humility replaces arrogance, why will we still be living with correctable challenges in this “cherished land” of ours?