2020 or the trivialisation of police violence

Newsletter, Shrinking Space for Civil Society

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In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, human rights and fundamental freedoms are at the core of a rewriting of democratic principles as we know them.

In order to muzzle all critical voices, the French and Tunisian governments are currently discussing freedom-destroying laws that would formalise the shift from a state based on the rule of law to a police state while flouting all citizen participation to the public debate. The stated aim of this strengthening of measures is the protection of law enforcement forces and the legitimate repression of physical or verbal attacks against the police. But, once again, the legislative power would like to take advantage of this umpteenth “protection measure” to limit, or even prohibit, the denunciation of police violence. 

As highlighted by UN experts in the case of the Global Security Law in France, “video images of police abuses captured by the public play an essential role in the surveillance of public institutions, which is fundamental for the rule of law”. Similarly, in the Tunisian bill, the dissemination of unblurred images of law enforcement officers could lead to four years in prison and a 10,000-dinar fine. 

These legislative developments are even more worrying as these bills provide for major obstacles to the possibility, essential in a state governed by the rule of law, to record and disseminate images of police forces. This is in contrast to the recent practice of videos taken by journalists (or ordinary citizens) that have made public cases of human rights violations. 

This excessive security turn represents the ultimate step in the definition of the state as the only actor with “the monopoly of legitimate violence”, as proposed by the German historian and sociologist Max Weber in 1919. In other words, a state where citizens are subject to the vagaries of power without any right of response. A monopoly which, in the French case, is also expressed in the government’s request to initiate the accelerated procedure for the adoption of the Global Security Law.  

This redefinition of democratic principles and of citizens’ participation in public life (guaranteed by Article 25(a) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights) currently underway in both countries could trigger a domino effect on the most fragile realities in the Euro-Mediterranean region. Nothing would then prevent the more authoritarian governments from taking advantage of this regression to strangle their populations. Unless there is a citizens’ outburst.