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Riots in England and HRW's silence

By Berhane Kahsay
August 20 2011

England was in turmoil last week, London being the epicenter. The death of Mark Duggan at the hands of the police triggered the riots that lasted for three days. During the mayhem, four people had been killed and numerous large and small shops were looted and burnt to the ground. It was too much to take for local shop owners and many were reduced to tears. They spent years to build their businesses, and it only took a few minutes to ransack and destroy them. There had been riots in London and other parts of England before, but the damage caused last week was extensive and wide spread. Many people are unhappy about it and are demanding swift action against the perpetrators.

David Cameron, the British Premier, is proposing draconian measures to punish the culprits. Most of the youths involved in the riots and looting are black aged 11-18. Politicians of all party and members of the community are deeply concerned by this knee-jerk reaction to the disturbances that took place in the streets of London, Manchester, Birmingham and Nottingham. The courts are sitting day and night including weekends to deal with the 1500 alleged rioters and looters currently in custody. Years of court practices such as sentencing guide lines had been set aside in order to make it easy for the judges to punish the rioters and looters severely. Anyone 18 or over, who is found guilty, would lose his/her welfare benefit forthwith. It is feared that this action could force the youngsters to steal for mere survival if they were to fail to secure employment after their releases from prison.

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The Premier is also targeting the parents of the convicted rioters and looters. His government is considering evicting them from their homes allocated to them by the government. There would be no legal duty on the part of the government to provide further housing as the parents would be deemed to have made themselves intentionally homeless from their previous abode. Private renting is an option. But if they are prevented from claiming housing benefit, the entire family could end up in the streets. Subjecting the parents of the rioters and looter to such a humiliating treatment is very harsh indeed. Most legal experts believe that this is a clear case of gross human rights violation that must be challenged before it gets any further. What is handed down is retribution, not justice. David Cameron is using the unfortunate disturbances to gain popularity for himself and to boost support for his faltering party. The Premier was not as though to those who were responsible for ruining the economy and the lives of millions of people in the UK.

France was the victim of riots that lasted for three weeks in 2005. During this unrest, 2900 people were arrested and 9000 cars were set ablaze in various cities and towns. Of these, 1400 were burnt in a single day. Unlike the British, the French understood the underlying causes for the flare up, and came up with various measures to deal with the problems. What we see in Britain is a failure to appreciate the social factors that have been festering for decades. As the grievances of the disfranchised youths are simply glossed over, further riots in the foreseeable future could not be ruled out completely.

Flooding the streets of London with 16,000 police officers had only brought a short term reprieve, but for a long lasting solution, the underlying causes such abandoning school at early age, unemployment, racism, family break- down, lack of equal opportunities, lack of decent homes, poverty, absence of social centers, lack of skills, teenage pregnancy, living in an overcrowded conditions, drug addiction and other pertinent issues must be addressed as a matter of utmost urgency. Parents also have a significant role to play, but with all the problems on their plate, it is unfair to place the entire blame on them for the unruly behavior of their children. Both government and parents must work hand in hand to produce productive and law abiding youths. Policing alone could not mitigate the aged old problems. Shutting down social networking sites like, Twitter, and introducing water cannon and rubber bullets would not do the job either. Creative thinking is what is required when the chips are down.

What is disturbing is the silence of the so called ‘champions’ of civil liberties such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Parents are facing eviction, and young boys and girls, some only 11 years of age, are dragged to police stations and courts, and no one is standing up for them. If these gross violation of human rights had been in a third world country, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International would have been on our screens in a flash. It was only a week or so a ago that Human Rights Watch had accused the Ethiopia government of using aid to punish supporters of the opposition. No evidence was provided to substantiate this scandalous allegation. The same organization also reared its ugly face before and during the Ethiopian general elections that took place in 2005. Members of the opposition who went on the rampage and killed police officers were detained and taken to court, and quite rightly received proportional punishments for their crimes. Compared to England, the Ethiopian police officers that were in the streets of Addis at the height of the 2005 disturbances were only in hundreds and not in thousands. Human Rights Watch wanted to make a meal out of the chaos that ensued, but it did not work. Things returned to normal pretty quickly which must have been a bitter disappointment to Human Rights Watch.

Human Rights Watch routinely interferes in the internal affairs of almost all third world countries. On numerous occasions, it had been accused of trying to influence the outcomes of general elections in various countries. It compiles damning reports based on hearsay and makes no effort to check the veracity of the information it receives from its alleged sources. It has become a common occurrence for Human Rights watch officers to be kicked out from wherever they happen to report. Why then the silence when it comes to Europe and North America? Why not apply the same standards? Two youngsters were sentenced to four years imprisonment for using the Face Book to incite riots in a certain area in England, but nothing happened. According to the British sentencing guide lines, four years is give to someone convicted of killing while driving under the influence of alcohol or sexual assault or kidnapping. This is not the kind of justice one expects from a so called ‘civilized’ country. It is high time that Human Rights Watch should speak up whenever and wherever there is violation of human rights. Race and economic status should never be the overriding criteria.