Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 2 July 2020

In parts of the Middle East, police reforms are key to restoring human dignity

George Floyd's killing in US police custody has lessons for law enforcement in this region as well

A member of Iran-backed Popular Mobilisation Forces stands guard next to a placard carrying an obituary notice and the pictures of slain Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis and the Iranian general Qasem Soleimani in front of a military base in Baghdad. EPA
A member of Iran-backed Popular Mobilisation Forces stands guard next to a placard carrying an obituary notice and the pictures of slain Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis and the Iranian general Qasem Soleimani in front of a military base in Baghdad. EPA

The Black Lives Matter protests in the US have continued over the past few weeks to shed light on systemic racism in the country and have spread farther afield to places such as Canada and France. The video of George Floyd, the black man who a month ago was killed by a police officer kneeling on his neck for more than eight minutes as he struggled to breathe, has become a rallying cry against police brutality.

Other similar incidents of violence against black and indigenous people have come to light since then, including three separate incidents in Canada, where I live. In one, dashcam footage shows officers from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) – the equivalent of the American FBI – savagely beating Allan Adam, a prominent indigenous leader, outside a casino in Alberta.

In another, an RCMP officer in Nunavut was recorded driving his truck into an apparently intoxicated indigenous man. And in another case, police shot an indigenous woman in her house in New Brunswick after being called in to check on her well-being. The incidents have prompted calls for Canada to grapple with systemic racism in its own police force.

Protesters march by a photo of Frederick Douglas, a historic abolitionist, during a Juneteenth march in honour of Rayshard Brooks and other victims of police violence in Boston. AFP
Protesters march by a photo of Frederick Douglas, a historic abolitionist, during a Juneteenth march in honour of Rayshard Brooks and other victims of police violence in Boston. AFP

One aspect of the protests that was quite shocking to outside observers was the incredible brutality with which police responded to them in the US. Videos of New York police officers beating protesters with batons, and another in which a police officer pushed an elderly man in Buffalo to the ground and left him bleeding from the head, highlighted instances of disproportionate violence and militarisation of certain aspects of policing, spurring activist calls to defund and radically curtail the powers of law enforcement.

These episodes should give us pause in the Middle East, where internal security services in several countries enjoy a carte blanche to abuse the citizenry and consider themselves above the law they are meant to enforce.

The police violence in America garnered some facetious comparisons to the response of security forces loyal to totalitarian leaders like Bashar Al Assad in Syria to protesters demanding dignity and an end to corruption. These comparisons are clearly over the top – the US remains a democracy, and its police forces have not murdered half a million civilians or forcibly disappeared and tortured tens of thousands of political prisoners.

Fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces parade at the funeral of a fellow fighter in the Kurdish-controlled city of Qamishli in north-eastern Syria. AFP
Fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces parade at the funeral of a fellow fighter in the Kurdish-controlled city of Qamishli in north-eastern Syria. AFP

Mr Al Assad, and his father before him, presided over the empowerment of several competing branches of an internal security apparatus that spies over the populace and abducts civilians at will. The regime carries out systematic abuses and violations of human rights that range from extrajudicial killings, the employment of over 70 distinct torture methods, acts of terrorism and violence against peaceful protesters. Syria’s so-called law enforcement system is one that upholds the law of the jungle. But even though it is an extreme case, it is far from the only one.

In Egypt, the 2011 protest movement coalesced around the image of Khaled Said, a young man from Alexandria who was killed in police custody. Images of his disfigured corpse went viral, galvanising anger at the police and highlighting other forms of abuse meted out by arms of the state.

In Turkey, law enforcement has become a tool wielded by the country’s increasingly authoritarian leadership, used to punish dissidents and media at will. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Ankara is the world’s second biggest jailer of journalists, after three years leading the pack. Journalists suffer even worse fates elsewhere in the region.

In many parts of the Middle East, it is not clear who is even in charge of law enforcement. In Syria, myriad militias, intelligence services, military forces, sectarian units and foreign-backed mercenaries are the law. In Iraq, Iran-backed militias in the anti-ISIS campaign decided who was a sympathiser of the terrorist group and could be arrested or forcibly displaced, and who was let go.

The runaway despotism of law enforcement, and even the sheer lawlessness in too many corners of the Arab world, can make the very idea of reform appear preposterous. But reforming those systems and their relationship with the people is paramount if we care at all about concepts like social justice and equality under the law. In fact, they may be the crucial first step if we are to build societies that live up to the expectations of rising youth populations and we are to adopt models of gradual, meaningful progress on the measure of human dignity.

It is high time for law enforcement in several countries of the Arab world to fulfil its stated raison d’etre: "al shorta fee khedmat al shaab", or “the police serves the people". Not the other way around.

Kareem Shaheen is a former Middle East correspondent based in Canada

Updated: June 24, 2020 09:42 PM

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