CHRR urges respect for citizens’ rights as police embarks on Operation Vala Mask

As the Malawi Police Service (MPS) gears to go into serious enforcement of all Covid-19 Rules and Regulations as stipulated in the Public Health Act Corona Virus and Covid-19 Prevention, Containment and Management, the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR) has urged the law enforcers to respect human and people’s rights in the course of enforcing the measures.

CHRR executive director Michael Kaiyatsa, in a statement issued today, expressed fear that Malawi could witness of a repeat of the previous situation when police officers were harassing drivers and beating up pedestrians not wearing face masks at market places, bus depots and on the streets under the guise of enforcing covid-19 measures.

National Police Spokesperson, James Kadadzera

In his statement, the National Police Spokesperson James Kadadzera disclosed that the effective today, the law enforcers will start enforcing what they have termed as ‘Operation Vala Mask’ to ensure total adherence and compliance to all the rules and regulations that are in place to curb further spread of Covid-19.

Kadadzera said amongst the rules and regulations contained in the Public Health Act include: wearing of face masks in public places, closing of bars and bottle stores by 10pm, seating capacity of 50 percent in public transport and a curfew starting from 10pm to 6am.

“The law enforcers have further warned of arrest and subsequent prosecution to all those defying Covid-19 Rules and Regulations. The MPS assures Malawians of professionalism during the enforcement of the preventive measures and that people’s rights will be duly respected, reads part of the statement,” he said.

In reaction, Kaiyatsa emphasized that while they fully understand the gravity of the current situation and the need for urgent responses to curb the further spread of the corona virus, using the police to violently enforce Covid-19 preventive measures will not be effective and will do more harm than good.

He argued that experience from past and present epidemics like HIV and Aids shows that responses to health crises such as Covid-19 work best in the context of community understanding, trust, cooperation and, generally, respect for human rights.

“People will cooperate better if they understand why they have to wear facemasks or why they have to observe social distancing,” says Kaiyatsa, warning that while violence might deliver short-term compliance, it cannot be part of an effective strategy to contain the coronavirus.

Kaiyatsa said apart from the clear ethical issues with police brutality, the risk is that if these extreme policing measures are applied without due caution and consideration, they will eventually be resisted.

“Authorities need to get the public to comply and modify their behaviour, whether Police are watching or not. The public is not the enemy here – the virus is, and we need informed consent to get the kind of compliance that can turn the situation around. Ideally, the police should be the last line of defence against a virus. Using the police as a substitute for effective public health communication and awareness not only makes this work more difficult, it undermines it completely. This is all the more important in a country like Malawi, where police officers have a record of abusive treatment, especially towards the poor and the voiceless,” emphasizes Kaiyatsa.

He further reminds police authorities of their pledge to respect the rule of law and human rights principles in which our governance structure is rooted. While it is true that some human rights may be limited during an emergency in order to protect public health and safety, such restrictions, according to section 44 (1) of our constitution, must be prescribed by law, reasonable, recognized by international human rights standards and necessary in an open and democratic society.

“Therefore, to ensure that Malawi complies with its human rights obligations during this pandemic, the government should urgently lead efforts to end abuses by police forces. We particularly urge the Ministry of Homeland Security to send a clear, unambiguous message that human rights violations will not be tolerated and that all allegations of excessive use of police force will be promptly and impartially investigated and those responsible will be held to account,” says Kaiyatsa.

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