Ramallah – On 8 August 2018, the Civil Forum for Promoting Good Governance in the Security Sector held its first annual conference on Palestinian Security Sector Governance at the Palestine Red Crescent Society hall, El-Bireh. The conference brought together an impressive number of representatives of civil society organisations and security agencies, members of the legal community, researchers, and lecturers at Palestinian universities. The conference comprised four components, which would promote and support security sector governance to help implement security tasks in accordance with the law: (1) Effectiveness of the complaints systems at security agencies; (2) effectiveness of oversight of the performance of security agencies; (3) right to freedom of peaceful assembly; and (4) enforcement of and compliance with codes of conduct in the security sector.
To move toward the future, parties participating in the conference called on the Palestinian security agencies to review, and learn lessons from, their operations. Participants stressed the urgent need for a new social contract between the people and security agencies, expressing their aspirations for a democratic Palestinian security sector, which would protect rights, freedoms, stability, security and constitutional institutions. Ensuring respect for human rights and dignity, these institutions will not serve as a defensive shield for the political system or a tool of the ruling party.
Hama Zeidan, Director of the Advocacy and Community Accountability Department at the Coalition for Accountability and Integrity (AMAN), opened the first conference session. “This first conference of the Forum seeks to come up with clear recommendations on community oversight and accountability of the security sector in the absence of the main accountability body, namely, the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC). The Forum will continue to place pressure on government bodies to adopt the conference recommendations.” Zeidan stated.
The opening session began with a presentation by Omar Mr. Rahhal, the Forum Secretary, who made a briefing note on the Forum. According to Rahhal, the Forum is an incubator that brings together a number of civil society organisations engaged in the promotion of the rule of law, respect for human rights, democratisation, consolidation of integrity, anticorruption activity, and strengthening of community accountability.
Rahhal touched on the goals of the Forum. These include (1) contributing to developing and ensuring the implementation of the Palestinian National Security Sector Strategy; (2) allowing room for civil society organisations to contribute to making public policies on the operations of, and working relationships between, the security establishment and other sectors; (3) contributing to developing mechanisms of communication and openness between the civil society and security sector; (4) and promoting citizens’ right of access to concise information on operations of the security sector within the limits of law; and (5) reinvigorating community oversight of the security sector and agencies and ensuring the effectiveness of relevant accountability systems.
Rahhal focused on Palestinian citizens’ right to enjoy security, safety and tranquillity, making clear that the provision of security is not a favour done by the executive power or political system. Rather, security is a key requirement and a cornerstone, which must be delivered impartially, integrally and transparently. Citizens can, therefore, move on and enjoy prosperity and growth in various areas. Rahhal presented a descriptive theoretical framework of the current security context. According to the Oslo Agreements, multiple Palestinian security agencies and leaderships gradually shifted from revolutionary structures and legitimacy to institutions of the Palestinian Authority (PA) (i.e. the constitutional legitimacy). This means that the Palestinian security sector was not created within a normal context. Palestinians have not reached a consensus over the security agencies’ functions and tasks. The doctrine of these agencies is still vague and controversial among the Palestinian community.
Mr. Issam Arouri provided an overview of the challenges that face and undermine the role of Palestinian security agencies. In the first place, the Israeli occupation compromises the solemn status of, and respect for, Palestinian security sector. The PA is confined to a security role, which is dictated by Israel’s perception. The Israeli occupying authorities expropriate Palestinian land and properties and abuse Palestinians’ rights on a daily basis. Another challenge is posed by the early retirement of civil servants (i.e. retirement before the officially established retirement age is attained). In crisis situations, executive officials had a hostile reaction to, and showed an incomprehensible attitude towards, public protests. Additionally, sweeping accusations are made against all people with dissenting views. These are labelled as “promoters of foreign agendas”, agents, spies or mercenaries. This was exactly the case of the peaceful assembly, which called for lifting the sanctions on Gaza.
Based on his assessment of the current stage, Arouri stated that we lived in a state of infighting, which is grounded in intimidation, dismissal and exclusion. Legal and democratic instruments for the transition of power are not in place. In addition to incompetent institutions, peaceful transition of power in states of emergency is not ensured.
Arouri called for restructuring the system of internal accountability for violations and unlawful practices. The relationship with the public should be premised on the principle of equal citizenship in rights and dignity. The judicial apparatus needs to be reformed and developed so that it can play it impartial, effective and efficient role and ensure community safety. Social security builds on both economic security and community safety. The approach to security within a police framework should come an end.
Confronting the century’s conspiracy requires uniting and unleashing the best potential of society on the basis of a national political, economic and social programme. This initiative should be grounded in the principle of engagement, strengthened perseverance, and shared burdens.
Dr. Mohammad al-Masri, Director of the Palestinian Centre for Strategic Studies and Researches, stressed the importance of an inclusive political vision and national consensus. According to Al-Masri, the conference was tailored to support security agencies and benefit from pioneering expertise and experiences. Rather than holding security agencies to account, the conference is premised on community partnership and seeks to develop the capacities of security actors.
In his address, Dr. Azmi Shuaibi, Consultant to AMAN’s Board of Directors, stated that the significant goal of the conference was to create a Palestinian community vision of what citizens want from the security sector. The Palestinian society needs to come up with a balanced formula of the real role assigned to security agencies. Namely, security agencies will be committed to ending the occupation, promoting the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination, and building state institutions. Security agencies are a tool to implement mandated tasks. They are subject to internal and external oversight and are held to account in accordance with to the law. Security agencies are required to deliver services equitably and without discrimination or prejudice. They should dissociate themselves from political rivalries, maintain the solemn status of the State and rule of law, and contribute to, but not interfere with, functions of the judicial and executive powers.
In the first conference session, panellists made several recommendations to ensure more effective oversight of the performance of security agencies. These included restoring the Palestinian political system by holding general elections for a new PLC that is capable of drafting regulations and exercising control over executive bodies; putting an end to the Executive’s domination of other authorities, particularly the Judiciary; allowing Palestinian civil society organisations to play a greater role in the oversight of security agencies, particularly by the PLC, Council of Ministers, State Audit and Administrative Control Bureau (SAACB) and Independent Commission for Human Rights (ICHR); and concerting efforts of civil society organisations so that they serve as pressure groups to lobby for the control over the Executive power and respective security agencies.
Capacity building will be provided to internal oversight units at security agencies by delivering training to oversight staff and developing regulations and procedures that govern their functions. The status of SAACB should be promoted and the Bureau itself will be given administrative and financial independence. In addition to enacting security sector laws, an ICHR law needs to be promulgated. The ICHR will be granted broader powers to monitor the situation of human rights. Accordingly, the civil society will be enabled to exercise its oversight role more effectively.
In spite of the improvement in the handling of complaints filed to security agencies, functions performed by the complaints units at security agencies continued to be challenged by many obstacles in both the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Besides the lack of dedicated facilities to receive complaints, a unified electronic system for complaints units is not available. The public are unaware of complaints units and complaint handling staff do not have adequate experience. The process of enforcing penal actions against offending security personnel is slow. Female security officers are not employed to receive complaints filed by women. The complaints system is further debilitated by undermined public trust and confidence in complaints units and by poor expertise in producing reports on complaints outputs. At certain complaints units, staff members are in need of a legal background and practical training to help them follow up on complaints. Some units are challenged by short human resources and logistic support.
Laws on security agencies should provide for vesting security agencies with the power to investigate complaints. Complaints units at security agencies need to be distributed between the headquarters and district offices of security agencies. Particular attention should be paid to security agencies with daily and direct interaction with the public, such as the Police, General Intelligence and Preventive Security. All complaints units at security agencies will report directly to relevant directors. Accordingly, these units will have more powers to ensure effective delivery of assigned tasks. More training courses will be provided to complaints unit personnel, particularly newly established staff members, to help them acquire more detailed knowledge about complaint handling procedures and international best practice.
The Computerised Central Government Complaints System will be reinvigorated to help citizens file complaints and eliminate duplicate complaints at more than a security agency. Additionally, the system serves as an effective tool for control and accountability for the complaint handling process, starting with the receipt and ending with the closing of complaints. Some citizens will no longer be afraid of filing complaints. The e-portal will be activated to receive complaints on websites of all security agencies.
Where possible, social media networks will also be used. Stereotypical replies by security agencies to complaints filed by citizens or the ICHR will be eliminated. Replies should be clearly and accurately reasoned, avoiding overbroad expressions. Opinion polls will be conducted to gauge public satisfaction with the performance of security agencies with regard to complaints. In this context, actions will be taken to overcome the problems indicated by citizens.
Dr. Jihad Kiswani, professor at Al-Quds University, Mr. Mousa Abu Duheim, Director of the ICHR Investigation and Complaints Unit, and Mr. Shawan Jabarin, Director General of Al-Haq (also a member of the Forum), commented on the papers on Effectiveness of Oversight of the Performance of Security Agencies and Effectiveness of the Complaints Systems at Security Agencies. Commentators highlighted the lack of political will, dead letter laws, and an absent mechanism for accountability. They also stressed that accountability should be as grave as the offences committed. In the ensuing discussion, Mr. Majed al-Arouri disapproved of the many laws published in just three issues of the Palestinian Official Gazette in July alone. In other countries, a law is approved, promulgated and entered into force during a timeframe of six months to one or more year(s). Arouri also commented on the issue of torture, which had not been tackled by the papers. He also stressed the need for an effective PLC, which fosters community oversight.
The second conference session addressed the right to freedom of peaceful assembly. Freedom of peaceful assembly is of paramount importance to exercise many other human rights and public freedoms, enshrined in international conventions and standards, modern constitutions, and national legislative. Abuse of, and encroachment on, the right to freedom of peaceful assembly by the State and its security agencies amounts to political corruption.
The presentation investigated violations of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly, particularly under the internal Palestinian political divide of 2007. The executive and judicial powers have not addressed abuses of the right to freedom of peace assembly in tandem with the law. Both governments in Ramallah and Gaza have severely restricted this right. This is attributed to the political situation and stalemate in the national reconciliation effort.
Providing for the right to freedom of peaceful assembly, Article 26 of the Basic Law of 2003 is in consistence with relevant international and regional conventions and standards. Issued in contrariety with Articles 68 and 70 of the Basic Law, the Bylaw of the Law on Public Meetings No. 1 of 2000 places extensive restrictions on the right to freedom of peaceful assembly, contradicting PNA’s earlier declaration of commitment to international human rights standards and conventions. In particular, the Bylaw is in conflict with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which the State of Palestine acceded lately. The PNA is under a primary obligation to respect and enforce provisions of the ICCPR.
Commissions of inquiry into abuses of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly are relegated to a pro forma role. Serious accountability actions are not initiated by competent judicial bodies. Recommendations submitted by these commissions are not implemented. As a result, offenders feel “immune” and are not held to account. In this context, the presentation cited an example of the commission of inquiry into the trial of Basel al-A’raj.
Mahmoud Alawneh, author of the research paper on the Right to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly, recommended that the PLC redraft and amend the Law on Public Meetings and its Bylaw. Some provisions of the Law are inconsistent with those of the Bylaw. These are also unconstitutional under the Amended Basic Law of 2003. Palestinian regulations on the right to freedom of peaceful assembly should be aligned with relevant international conventions, particularly those ratified by the State of Palestine. Every person who abuses the right to freedom of peaceful assembly will held to account on both administrative and criminal levels. Integrity, transparency and right of access to information should be promoted within the commissions of inquiry, which are established by political levels to investigate violations of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly. The findings and recommendations reached by the commissions of inquiry into any abuses of human rights, particularly the right to freedom of peaceful assembly, should be published.
Researcher Abdul Rahman Rihan explained that every Palestinian security agency has adopted its own code of conduct and ethics. In addition to the security sector legislation, codes of conduct and ethics provide a general voluntary framework, which security personnel must comply with. They contain ethical standards, values and principles, which security personnel should abide by when they perform their tasks and duties. The fundamental principles contained in codes of conduct in Palestine are based on the Basic Law and Declaration of Independence.
Security agencies’ compliance with codes of conduct is obstructed by several challenges. These include ineffective oversight, publication and dissemination of codes of conduct as well as inadequate description of the role of oversight bodies and mechanisms. The role SAACB plays in the control over the enforcement of code of conduct by security agencies is unclear. A clear and solid legal basis that enables the promotion of codes of conduct from ethical commitment to a legal obligation is lacking. Oversight and inspection departments need to be supported with qualified and staff members, who specialise in the areas of integrity and combating corruption. This is particularly the case at the Civil Defence agency.
In his comment, Mu’in al-Barghouthi, Director of the Institute of Law at Birzeit University, emphasised that the freedom of assembly is an inherent right and legacy, which safeguards the freedom of expression. Barghouthi expressed his hope for a democratic society, a pillar of which maintains rights and freedoms. Barghouthi called for creating a human rights court and developing constitutional standards, so that all rights are safeguarded. In accordance with the Basic Law, provisions that derogate from freedoms should be repealed. A compensation fund should be establish to provide reparations for victims. Mr. Ahmed Issa, Director of the Palestine Institute for National Security Researches, commented on the research papers on the Right to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Enforcement of and Compliance with Codes of Conduct in the Security Sector. Issa highlighted the difficulty of governing a sector, which is not fully locally owned as a result of restrictive agreements. According to Issa, the gap should be bridged between security agencies and civil society organisations, particularly with partner legal institutions.