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The petition suggests the UK Government should consider using the sanctions regime to impose sanctions on members of the Nigerian Government and police force involved in any human rights abuse.

The petition has been prompted by the actions of one police unit in particular, the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, known as SARS. Originally created in 1992 to fight violent crime, the unit became synonymous with police brutality. In 2016 Amnesty International reported:

[SARS]is responsible for widespread torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment (other ill-treatment) of detainees in their custody.

[…]

SARS officers involved in the torture and other ill treatment of detainees are rarely held to account and in some cases are transferred to another location to avoid punishment.[1]

The #EndSARS tag began trending on social media in 2017 alongside reports of police abuse and assault. In early October 2020 a video of a man allegedly being killed by SARS officers prompted large-scale protests against the unit. The forceful response by police to those protests further exacerbated tensions. On October 11 President Muhammadu Buhari announced plans to disband the unit and reform the police.

However, such promises have been made before. And Mayeni Jones, the BBC Nigeria correspondent, suggests disbanding SARS may not resolve the underlying issue of police brutality, and activists are calling for a total overhauling of policing in Nigeria. The military and police are rarely held accountable for malfeasance or for perpetrating human rights violations, Matthew Page, associate fellow in the Africa Programme at Chatham House, wrote in 2019 in an article on Nigeria’s struggles with security sector reform. Page said much of the responsibility for the security forces failings “can be laid at the feet of Nigeria’s political leaders”.

Amnesty International is also calling for the Nigerian authorities to explain the army’s role in the deaths of protestors at Lekki Toll Gate on 20 October.

The UK Government has outlined its position in the response to the petition. The Government said it welcomed the disbandment of SARS and the establishment of judicial panels of inquiry to investigate allegations of brutality. The FCDO urged the Nigerian Government to hold those responsible to account. The statement continues:

The UK Government will continue to work with the Nigerian Government and international and civil society partners to support justice, accountability and a more responsive policing model in Nigeria. We will continue to push for the Nigerian security services to uphold human rights and the rule of law, investigate all incidents of brutality, illegal detentions and use of excessive force, and hold those responsible to account.

The Lords International Relations and Defence Committee discussed Nigeria’s links with the UK and the security challenges facing the country in its report the UK and Sub-Saharan Africa (HL Paper 88) published in July 2020.

Data on violence in Nigeria can be found in the Nigeria Security Tracker, provided by the Council on Foreign Relations, a US-based think-tank. This tracks violence by both state and non-state actors. Crisis Group’s Crisis Watch database also tracks violent incidents in Nigeria.

Magnitsky sanctions

Pressure for a legal regime that specifically provided for corrupt officials guilty of human rights violations to be sanctioned has grown since the death of Russian lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky. With the UK needing a new legal framework for sanctions after Brexit, the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill 2017-18 was an ideal opportunity to create a “Magnitsky” sanctions regime. After Opposition and Government amendments, the Sanctions and anti-Money Laundering Act 2018 includes gross human rights violation as a reason for imposing sanctions on a person or an entity.

After the passage of the 2018 Sanctions Act, the Government said it would bring forward more detail on Magnitsky sanctions in the form of secondary legislation using the powers in that Act.

The Government announced the first new sanctions using the Sanctions Act in July 2020. They were also the first UK Magnitsky sanctions. The measures imposed asset freezes and travel bans on Saudi citizens alleged to have been involved in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist murdered in the Saudi Embassy in Istanbul. Also targeted were Russian officials allegedly involved in the mistreatment of Sergei Magnitsky in a Moscow jail.

The UK government also pledges to develop using powers in the Sanctions Act a legal formula for creating sanctions specifically on officials who profit from corruption.

Other countries have introduced Magnitsky-style sanctions legislation or are working on it. The European Commission started organising EU Magnitsky legislation in December 2019.

[1]     “You have signed your death warrant: torture and other ill treatment by Nigeria’s special anti-robbery squad (SARS)”, Amnesty International, 2016


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