(Dakar) - The special unit to maintain security during the second round of Guinea's presidential elections, on November 7, 2010, should act with discipline, minimum force, and neutrality, Human Rights Watch said today. While the first round of elections took place in June in relative calm, the run-off election will take place amid heightened ethnic and political tensions.
In May, the Guinean government created the Special Force for a Safe Electoral Process (Force spéciale de sécurisation du processus électoral, FOSSEPEL), with 16,000 members, half of them police and half gendarmes, to ensure security during and after the electoral process. The few clashes between supporters of different political parties before and immediately after the first round were defused quickly and in apparent compliance with the principles of minimum use of force. However, FOSSEPEL officials' response to political violence in late October in Conakry, the capital, was characterized by excessive force, lack of discipline, criminality, and ethnic partisanship.
"The chances for violence during, and particularly after, this election are very real," said Corinne Dufka, senior West Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. "The Guinean security services must do all they can to protect all Guineans and ensure that the electorate is able to cast their votes free of fear."
General Ibrahim Baldé, the head of the National Gendarmerie, commands the special unit. In July, Baldé signed a much-needed Use of Force Policy, under which Guinean security forces are required to adhere to internationally recognized best practices for responding to violence, including minimum use of force.
During the October clashes, Human Rights Watch received numerous credible reports of misconduct by policemen and gendarmes serving with FOSSEPEL, including beatings and assaults on party supporters. In some cases, the victims were even chased into their homes and workplaces. Based on the reports, some members of the security unit used the unrest as a pretext to loot shops and commit criminal acts, including theft of mobile phones, money, and other goods.
Each of the two candidates for the run-off election is from one of the country's two largest ethnic groups, and members of each group largely support the candidate from their own group. Cellou Dalein Diallo, of the Union of Democratic Forces of Guinea (Union des forces démocratiques de Guinée, UFDG), is a Peuhl; and Alpha Condé, Rally of the Guinean People Party (Rassemblement du peuple de Guinée, RPG), is a Malinké. Very few Peuhls are members of the security services, though.
Witnesses described how some FOSSEPEL officers targeted individuals for abuse and theft on the basis of their ethnicity, using racially motivated threats and warning them not to vote for a particular party. Scores of protesters were also arbitrarily detained in gendarme camps and denied access to legal representation.
After the unrest in October, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) reported that at least one person had been killed and 62 injured by the security forces in what it determined was excessive use of force. Members of FOSSEPEL have been implicated in many of the recorded incidents. During some incidents, demonstrators erected roadblocks, burned tires, and threw stones, wounding some members of the security forces.
Instead of initiating investigations into allegations of abuse, FOSSEPEL officials appear to have distanced themselves from responsibility, Human Rights Watch said. Local news sources have reported that senior members of the security forces, including Baldé himself, said the alleged abuses were committed by "uncontrolled elements" within the police, gendarmes, and army.
Political and ethnic tension has been steadily rising in Guinea since September. The body charged with overseeing the election has only recently resolved a leadership crisis, while Guineans have waited through three postponements for the presidential election's second round. A suspected poisoning of dozens of supporters of the Guinean People Party during a meeting in Conakry spurred ethnically motivated attacks against members of the Peuhl ethnicity in at least four towns. The violence displaced about several thousands of people, mostly from the eastern towns of Siguiri, Kouroussa, and Kissidougou.
The tension has led many diplomats, analysts, and civil society leaders to warn of the likelihood of political violence after the second round. Human Rights Watch urged the Guinean authorities, especially General Baldé, to:
- Direct all members of FOSSEPEL forces to abide by the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials in policing demonstrations, and to frequently, and publicly, reinforce these instructions;
- Reiterate a zero-tolerance policy for criminal behavior and human rights abuses by the police and gendarmes; and
- Inform all ranks of the security forces that credible allegations of human rights abuses by security forces will be investigated and that those responsible will be disciplined and held to account.
The UN principles require law enforcement officials, in carrying out their duties, to use nonviolent means as far as possible before resorting to force. Whenever the lawful use of force is unavoidable, law enforcement officials must use restraint, minimize damage and injury at all times, and respect and preserve human life. Guinean authorities are responsible for ensuring that commanding officers are held accountable if they know, or had reason to know, that law enforcement officials under their command resorted to the unlawful use of force and firearms, and if they failed to take all measures in their power to prevent, suppress, or report such abuse.
Guinean security forces have on numerous occasions in the past used excessive and lethal force and engaged in widespread criminal activities in the course of responding to demonstrations. In 2006 and 2007, about 150 people were killed while protesting deteriorating economic conditions, and 1,700 were wounded. On September 28, 2009, at least 150 demonstrators were killed and 100 women and girls were raped by security forces during a bloody crackdown on demonstrators calling for free and fair elections.
Human Rights Watch also called on the United Nations, the European Union, France, and the United States to exert consistent and meaningful pressure on the security unit's commanders and Guinea's political leaders to ensure credible and peaceful elections.
"The second round of Guinea's elections can be a turning point for people long denied the right to freely elect their president," Dufka said. "If the security forces remain neutral, act professionally, and respond to any violence by making every effort to protect human life, they can help make this election a victory for all Guineans."