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Human Rights Key to Security: A Conversation with Ibrahim Wani

Despite historical distrust between security and human rights communities, these objectives are in fact complementary to attain sustainable security, says a distinguished human rights expert.

Is there a tradeoff between human rights and security? “It is a false debate,” says Dr. Ibrahim Wani. In an interview with the Africa Center, Dr. Wani discusses the historical tensions between human rights and security sector institutions and how to align policies to achieve their common objectives. Since security in Africa often depends on good community relations, a strong emphasis on human rights can build trust and cooperation between security sector actors and citizens. African countries that are most stable tend to have strong civil societies, he notes.

Dr. Wani is an independent consultant who has previously served as the Chief of the Research and Right to Development Division at the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights; the Regional Representative in the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Ethiopia; and Academic Dean at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies.

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Q: Dr. Wani, it’s really a pleasure to have you back at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies. As a former dean of the Africa Center who was who was involved in the Center’s activities from inception. You talked about human rights policy alignment in the context of the security sector.

The key question on our minds is: Is there a trade-off between human rights and security? Because this is a discussion that has been had on the African continent and elsewhere—is it false? Is there a choice between one or the other? What is your opinion?

WANI: No, I mean you’re absolutely right. This is an issue that comes up a lot. People often argue it is either human rights or security and so on. The simple answer, in my view, is, yes, it is a false debate. It is the result, I think, of a serious set of misconceptions and misunderstandings about human rights in particular but I also must say from the human rights community as well.

I think that if you look at it analytically the objective of Human rights and the objectives of security are not dissimilar. Human rights is about human dignity. It’s about the bundle of rights that individual citizens of a country do have. Whether it is an issue of your freedom, the right to be free from torture, the freedom to move, or of course, the sanctity of life and what have you. Security is not very different from that. Security is there to enable a society to enjoy those things. So, in some ways, they are complementary, in other ways, they sort of tug at the same sorts of goals.

Now, I say it is a question of misconception because I think oftentimes people caricature human rights. They reduce it to some simple, very simplistic ideas. And that then generates negativity. I think there are also times when the people who want to do security are thinking about methods and approaches that may not be consistent with even the rule of law and so when human rights people come in and say “look you can’t do this. You can’t do that. That this is unacceptable. You can’t hold an individual in jail for more than this because the Constitution says so,” the immediate reaction is “You are undermining security.”

But I do think in fact that there is a way to attain both.

Q: Now, so you say that these are very, very complementary ideas. Human rights as well as security are very complementary. So given that, what should rising security sector professionals from the African continent—what should they know about this complementarity and how should they approach it?

WANI: Well I think it goes to maybe a number of very general points that I’ll touch on very briefly. One, I think it is a problem—first of all starting off with a professional education or what have you—of understanding the proper objectives of security. What is the security sector intended to do? How are we going to do it? What is the purpose and the objective of human rights?

If you look at it historically, I think that part of the problem here arises because the human rights community and the security community were at times seen as being in contention with each other. We were fighting each other. And this is the result of historical happenstances during a military regime for example, when there were excesses by a regime and the human rights people were the ones fighting it.

So human rights took on a very political undertone. By the same token the human rights community was somewhat mistrustful—actually, not somewhat, it [the security community] became seriously distrustful and suspicious of the human rights community and that I think created that gap.

So the first thing is, for the security people to, first of all, to have a better understanding of the dimensions and the perspectives and goals of security, and of course also for the human rights community to have the same. Secondly, I think we need to look at where this tension arises—a lot. It is usually at the operational level—how you handle communities, the rules of engagement. I think, we have had a few examples where we have dealt with this case. In Uganda, for example, there was a period where the UPDF [Uganda People’s Defence Force] was facing very serious allegations about the way that it was conducting a disarmament program in Karamoja in the northeastern part of Uganda—a lot of accusations about torture, or this and the other—and eventually the human rights community intervened and I think this is a very good illustration of how this can be done.

At the end, once you take away some of this mistrust and suspicion, it became very clear that the goals–there was a very serious problem in Karamoja, there were serious issues with small arms, the effect of those small arms in the security in the area, and indeed the issue of disarmament was not a bad goal as such. The question was how do you do it and can you do it consistent with human rights. At the end of the day, the UPDF actually set up a human rights desk to try to deal with the issue. I think they undertook a very extensive education of the military. I believe that there was a much better understanding of how to do the job—how do you go about collecting guns from people. How do you move from a voluntary process to a forceful manner of doing so? And when you are doing that how do you deal with communities? How do you handle people in their homes? Getting away from practices such as bundling an entire family together and perhaps shooting randomly at people and so on.

So I think that from an operational standpoint, one can definitely come up with acceptable ways of achieving the objectives of security consistent with the ideals of human rights.

Q: Right. Now today you talked about institutional gaps and one of the things you said is that often you tend to have very good documents, very good strategy papers. You know, strategy papers on human rights for instance, which security sector institutions might have. But underneath that, you really don’t have the capacity. You don’t have implementation. That these institutions are not really organic and they are sort of out of place. I wonder if you could say a bit more about that.

WANI: Yeah, well I think that this has indeed become the biggest question and challenge in development. The starting point is why seemingly well-designed, reasonable policies—very basic things—cannot be implemented. Some people even give the example of running a post office. Everybody knows how that has to be done. The issue of delivering mail, some very basic protocols have been put in place to try to ensure that that is done.

A comparison is made among different levels of societies and I think the very, very interesting results that in societies with very strong, capable institutions, which tend to be also those in which there is also a fairly high level of development and what have you. If a policy is adapted with respect to how mail is going to be delivered. You say, when the wrong piece of mail ends up in your post office, what do you do with it? There’s a three day rule of returning it. By and large they accomplish those. They’ll get them back. On the other extreme, when you go to countries with very poor development indicators—those that have not done very well—a post office could be set up. It looks like a post office in any other part of the world—there are mail people, there are post office boxes. You recall how it is in Uganda, you have a box number you get in there—but, indications are that those kinds of things never get implemented at all.

And so the puzzle here is why? Why is it that if you take that simple example of the post office or maybe a health care facility. I was reading in the paper in Uganda, today actually, about the Speaker of Parliament going back to her home area in Kamuli and getting livid—I think it was over the weekend—because she had delivered some x-ray machines and things like that to the health care facility—to the hospital at home. She goes back a year later and those machines have not been set up. They are not functioning. And people have been sent out. If you are recommended for an X-ray diagnosis, you have to go out to a private service provider, pay for the x-ray and then bring it back to the health facility and maybe you go through that. That’s just one very simple example.

So there you have a case where the health facility is in place, there are presumably doctors and nurses there. They have gone through the trouble to bring the x-ray equipment there and I assume what is needed to operate the equipment should also be in place. But yet it is not put in place.

This is what we’re referring to by the institutional dilemma. A lot of these pieces are put together. And talking about institutions, I think part of which I wasn’t able to elaborate on in the discussion there is that it is a much more nuanced concept than just having a building, some staff members in a place, rules of procedure on the ground, but it’s actually how they function in practice. Do they understand their task? Do they actually do it? Are they sufficiently motivated to do that? Do they account for results? And I think that this is the very fundamental point that is being made here, that we do have the semblance of institutions but that they actually don’t operate in the manner that they are supposed to in order to deliver the required results.

Q: Now from that perspective, what should the relationship between international partners and local partners, in terms of advancing human rights. In the context of the security sector, bringing human rights and the security sector together. But in the context of these institutional gaps, what should that relationship be? What should international actors do? How should they approach the problem?

WANI: I think we—some very basic lessons we are learning. First of all, what I refer to there as sort of a “cut and paste” doesn’t work. This notion of “best practices”—they are important but we shouldn’t take them as somehow suggesting that you should copy wholesale, go, and integrate. I think we are not there yet, in terms of being able to deconstruct a practice. This is working well there. Why is it working well? What are the specific things that enable that to operate? Context is certainly a part of it. There are a lot of other intangibles that are very critical and relevant here.

Now part of the big problem and the mistakes that we get into is going out there and copying a model, a model law or this and that has worked well in country A and bringing it down to a country with a totally different environment and putting it in place. I think recognizing that is an extremely important thing—which then means, obviously, that you have to have a very good understanding of institutional dynamics. Why do certain institutions work better than others, what are the different parts that make it possible?

Some people are also arguing that integrating it into context is extremely important because one thing we are learning also is that you put one thing in one context, it behaves one way, you take it to a different context and the environment there has a tremendous amount of influence on how things work.

I gave the example there of going to—maybe you want to go and get the title to your land. You arrive in that Land Office, all the things are in place to make it work. There is a title registry, there are rules and processes about this, there is the way for you to prove that you are actually the owner of that land, there is perhaps a duplicate copy, there are provisions at hand, And there are offices that are supposed to handle that, but in one particular environment, you can walk in. I went to the Department of Motor Vehicles last week in Virginia. Took me 30 minutes to register a car that had I had just bought, a new one, and I was thinking “If I took this back to Uganda, would I be able to come out in 30 minutes with the registration of that car?” [laughter] Probably not. Actually, most likely, no. I would not be able to do that. And that raises a very interesting question: I don’t think we should dismiss it simply on account of a lack of capacity and this and that. I think we need to properly understand the dynamics that make that system respond differently to these rules in order for them to be able to work well.

I think the point that I’m driving at here is not just the context but also the issue of ownership. And going back specifically to your question, those who come with wonderful propositions and proposals on the table have to factor in the context as well, and I think the adaptation of those things is a thing that can only be done gradually.

I also talked about “leapfrogging.” Frankly, I’m coming to the conclusion that perhaps in many ways, we have, to our detriment, I must say, overlooked that element of the integrating processes and mechanisms in a rather deep way. You take the idea of human rights. It sounds fairly simple. We have Constitutions that have Bills of Rights. We have specific laws on the issues of gender, integration, and non-discrimination. In many, many countries we have adopted and incorporated the Convention against torture. There are laws against that. But yet, the practice on the ground is totally different. It does happen across the continent with a great deal of regularity.

Which means that it is not enough to bring in those rules and processes. It is not enough to adopt a piece of legislation. One needs to be able to sufficiently integrate it within the context of a country, and more importantly, it means also that you need to go beyond the elite level. Some people are arguing now that in fact what happens to a large extent is that this is a conversation that is taking place with a very, very thin layer of society at the top. So very critical operatives, your local policeman, the traffic person on the other hand, simply doesn’t understand and they respond to a very different set of stimuli. They are not the same. And in that context, what is very well meaning and looks very good, doesn’t really work.

Q: Well, that’s certainly a huge challenge on the continent and you know, we’ll definitely like to continue this discussion and really want to thank you for your time and we’ll definitely—

WANI: I really appreciate that. I think we have some—it is exciting. I mean, I think the point that I find very intriguing is we have been doing this business for how long now—and people who talk about development say maybe 50-60 years—and yet the conversation has moved much. And I think a very, very important adage—I don’t know whose song it was—but when you keep trying, eventually you will succeed. That seems to be the motto. But that may not be the way things work in the world. At some point you have to say “Hey! I’ve tried this over and over and over. It is not working. Maybe it’s time to step back and take a different look.”
But thank you very much. It’s been a pleasure talking to you.

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