Rule of Law in the Wake of Violence

By Gregory Treat – Jubilee Campaign Staffer, Government Relations Coordinator, Special Projects, Manager of Jubilee Facebook Page and This Blog

During the first week of August, the death of Londoner Mark Duggan and the resulting public backlash spiraled into a riot. The initial failure of the British police to contain the violence compounded the problem and public unrest spread both in London and several other British cities. The police substantially increased their numbers and the mob was gradually contained. After the violence subsided, the media frenzy began in earnest. Politicians and pundits have barely begun the struggle over root causes and proper blame.

From the perspective of a human rights advocate, I am more interested in how England’s legal system responded to widespread violence. Like the incidents of violence in many countries where Jubilee Campaign works, the London riots began as a response to a specific perceived injustice. I do not use the word perceived to deny the serious allegations of police brutality in shooting of Mark Duggan. However, whether the injustice involves a police shooting in London or potentially fraudulent election results in Nigeria, it is perception not reality that sparks the violence.

Mass violence feeds on itself, especially if the initial government response fails to restore order. Addressing the House of Lords on August 9, our friend Lord David Alton noted that while the 1981 Liverpool riots began in the black community, community leaders worked to restrain their young people. However after days without rule of law the white majority began rioting and looting for pleasure or financial gain.

Similarly the recent London riots began among the poor and disadvantaged then spread to what can only be considered members of the dominant class. Olympic ambassadors, ballerinas, and straight-A collegians, do not fit the profile of an oppressed underclass who hate and fear the police. Instead, these people joined the mob for their own personal reasons.

Many of the British officials involved in the crisis made poor or hasty decisions. Some of the public statements, particular those of Theresa May, were extremely ill considered. Nevertheless, the overall response of the British nation, in particular the ongoing work of the police force and the courts, showcases a genuine commitment to rule of law.

The British police took a firm stance for rule of law promising the rioters, many of whom were filmed committing violent crimes, “we are coming for you…” and promising to investigate allegations of police brutality. As of August 12, the number of arrested rioters rose to 1,700 across the country, and courts stayed open around the clock to process the charges. In one incident a car drove into a crowd of locals who were protecting their homes and shops and killed three members of the Muslim minority. The police responded by treating the case as a murder investigation, arresting suspects and collecting evidence for a murder trial.

I see a different response in Egypt, Indonesia, and Nigeria. In Egypt in a number of incidents since Christmas, mobs attacked the Coptic Christian community and perpetrators went unpunished. Instead of making arrests, police held reconciliation meetings, which prevented prosecutions from taking place. Egyptian Police failed to prosecute violent criminals even when the rioters were caught on film and the videos posted on Youtube.

In Indonesia Muslim mobs killed three Ahmidiyya, a minority sect of Islam. Police arrested less than fifty of 1,500 rioters. Despite film of the attackers committing murder, the police refused to charge them with felony level crimes. Most of those arrested were sentenced to time served and released after the trial. Meanwhile one of the victims of the attack received a sentence of six months on trumped up charges.

In Nigeria’s 2009-2010 massacres and violence in northern states including the Plateau State, the federal government arrested some of those who committed violent crimes but refused to turn the suspects over to state officials who could charge them with serious crimes. Suspects were freed after mock trials far away from the communities harmed by violence or simply released without the attempt to determine guilt. The closest thing to justice accomplished by the Nigerian police involved the extra-judicial killing of Mohammed Yusuf the leader of the Boko Haram terrorist group. Yet murder, even of a terrorist, only served to further weaken the rule of law in Nigeria.

As a human rights advocate, I do not believe that any people or nation is superior to another. No group possesses greater tendencies to violence than another. Instead, I believe that presence or absence of a commitment to rule of law creates an expectation of justice or injustice on the part of the people living under a government. That expectation of justice keeps a people from or propels a people toward violence. The level of commitment to rule of law in Britain’s government makes the riots temporary aberrations from which Britain can recover. Perhaps those nations haunted by the constant threat of widespread sectarian violence should take note.