Uganda’s police force recently announced that the “Flying Squad,” a new unit tasked to fight violent crime, had instructions to shoot-to-kill robbers. Activists were right to quickly point out that this is a clear violation of presumption of innocence and violates Uganda’s constitution.
Sadly, the announcement is more an admission of status quo than anything new. Unlawful tactics and impunity have characterized Uganda’s violent crime units for years. The only thing new about the Flying Squad is that the police are being honest about the fact that operatives may kill people without facing investigations into the circumstances, and innocent lives will be lost without justice efforts.
Violent crime units have changed names and commanders with surprising frequency. Operation Wembley, established in 2001, originated an unofficial “shoot-to-kill” policy and earned a reputation for torture and prolonged illegal detention. Wembley morphed into the Violent Crimes Crack Unit in 2003, later to become the Rapid Response Unit in 2007. When police leadership disbanded the Rapid Response Unit in December 2011 because of human rights concerns, it seemed like good news. Just a few months before, Human Rights Watch had launched a report detailing extrajudicial killings, torture, and forced confessions.
But as feared, this was another cosmetic change. Now we have the Flying Squad, run with Wembley’s men, ordered to use Wembley’s methods. Earlier this year, police rushed to defend one key operative, NixonAyegasirwe Karuhanga, stating that he “has an outstanding record of performance,” despite the fact that the police disciplinary court reprimanded him for torture and extortion in 2011, when he was working for Rapid Response Unit, and lowered his pay.
This recycling of abuses and bad policies should stop. Ugandans deserve a professional and disciplined force, willing to uphold rule of law and respect human rights. Whatever the name of the unit, the shoot-to-kill policy only guarantees impunity, entrenches brutality and undermines everyone’s safety.