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(Johannesburg) – The South African government should ensure that the Commission of Inquiry into the killings of the Lonmin miners in Marikana on August 16, 2012, is independent, impartial, and investigates the underlying circumstances that led to the killings, Human Rights Watch said today. The inquiry should not be limited to whether the use of lethal force by police was lawful, Human Rights Watch said.

The South African government should ensure that the commission is established speedily and that its terms of reference include a fact-finding mission on the background and underlying events leading to the violence in Marikana.

“President Zuma has acted swiftly in deciding to establish a Commission of Inquiry, but an effective inquiry should include a comprehensive review of the background of the most recent violence, including the deaths of police at the hands of miners,” said Cameron Jacobs, South Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The government should also explore the broader issues that have led to violent protests in the country.”

The government needs to show political leadership in helping to resolve the ongoing labor dispute, Human Rights Watch said. The tragedy raises issues about the general conditions of workers and their rights and why the normal channels for dispute resolution have not been effective in addressing workers’ rights and wage issues.

Thirty-four people were killed on August 16, when members of the South African Police Service opened fire on protesting miners armed with machetes, large sticks, and rocks at Lonmin Platinum Mine in Marikana, North West Province. The miners were demanding higher wages. On August 17, President Jacob Zuma announced that he would establish a Commission of Inquiry into the circumstances that led to the killings. The Commission of Inquiry’s members and terms of reference have yet to be announced.

In the week before the tragedy on August 16, workers were involved in a violent standoff between rival trade union members triggered by a demand for better wages. During the standoff, 10 people, including two police officers, were killed. Media reports indicate that the Lonmin management asked the police to restore order.

Over the past couple of years, South Africa has witnessed a number of extremely violent strikes and protests partly due to worsening poverty, increasing social inequality, low wages, and poor social service delivery. Police have struggled to maintain order during these strikes
South Africa’s Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) has also initiated an investigation into the incident at Marikana. In the light of the overlap of the subject matter between the two bodies, the terms of reference for the Commission of Inquiry should clearly set out the relationship between the two and ensure that the investigations complement each other.

The IPID inquiry should report publically on whether the evidence indicates that police officers acted in compliance with the law when they resorted to the use of lethal force and whether the use of lethal force under the circumstances was proportionate and justified, Human Rights Watch said.

“The police have the duty to ensure law and order, but the use of force must be proportional to the imminent threat of violence,” Jacobs said. “The IPID needs to investigate whether other alternatives to the use of live ammunition were exhausted before they resorted to deadly force.”

The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force by Law Enforcement Officials require law enforcement officials, in carrying out their duty, as far as possible, to apply non-lethal force before resorting to firearms in violent protests. In any event, firearms should not be used against people except when strictly necessary in response to an imminent threat of death or serious injury, where it is strictly unavoidable in order to protect life. All use of force must be exercised with restraint and in proportion to the seriousness of the offense and the legitimate objective to be achieved; and shall minimize damage and injury.

Section 49 of the South Africa’s Criminal Procedure Act states that force must always be reasonably necessary and proportional in the circumstances, and that deadly force, including shooting, may in addition be used only if the suspect poses a threat of serious violence to the arrestor or another person or persons.


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