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Book Review

Intricate balance between policing and human rights

Policing Protests
Policing Protests in Kenya. PHOTO | SALATON NJAU | NMG 

Just like protesters, police officers face numerous challenges every time citizens decide to enjoy their right to assembly and to petition public authorities as provided for in the Constitution.

For the protesters, the freedom of assembly comes with inherent risks, especially to life, limb and liberty, because, more often than not, protests put citizens on a direct collision path with law enforcement agencies.

For the police, on the other hand, their greatest risk is the perception that they abet oppression in a country that is otherwise a democracy. Often, they are seen as too trigger-happy, especially when called on to manage political protest or protests against police brutality itself.

How can these two opposing views be reconciled so that protests stop being regarded as life and death matters and the police are not seen as failing to offer “service to all”?

This is the question that Policing Protests in Kenya, published this week by the Centre for Human Rights and Policy Studies— a human rights and advocacy NGO — seeks to answer.

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Edited by Dr Mutuma Ruteere and Patrick Mutahi, this book adds to the growing body of knowledge about public participation in Kenya, policing protests and gatherings and advancing the human rights discourse in a country where national and political events, such as elections, have a direct bearing on the enforcement and enjoyment of human rights.

“Public gatherings often create a tense environment especially considering the potential of disorder and violence,” writes Brian Kimari in a policy brief on the new book.

“This presents questions on how to balance police duty to maintain law and order with that of protecting and respecting citizens’ right to peaceful assembly.”

That observation is at the very crux of the book that consists of six papers, written by human rights experts at home and abroad.

Not only does the book seek to understand this aspect of public life but also to change the culture around public protests and how they are policed.

It also examines the role of the Judiciary in mediating conflicts between the people — often seen as “ready to loot” — and the police, who are perceived as “ready to shoot”.

One of the seminal chapters in the book discusses how violent protests can be averted by ensuring that organisers of protests and those in authority among the police are engaged in dialogue before, during and after demonstrations.

The chapter cites one such example of successful engagement.

Another chapter borrows from the South African experience, showing Kenya how it can learn from both the good and bad experiences of public protests there and how authorities handled different incidents and came up with a standard working document that now guides police and public actions during protests.

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