Only three months into her new job as Botswana’s Ambassador to the United Nations in Switzerland, Athaliah Molokomme, will be forced to tackle the ticklish subject of poaching-related extra-judicial killings that a Botswana cabinet minister has justified.
Last Thursday, Survival International, wrote to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights’ Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, Agnes Callamard, to seek clarification on whether the shoot-on-sight policy that has been adopted by countries like Botswana is lawful. In September last year, Callamard’s office published a report on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions. The report was addressed to the UN Secretary General who, in terms of UN procedure, was to transmit it to the General Assembly. While it addresses itself to various kinds of extrajudicial killings, the report doesn’t specifically mention the kind carried out by anti-poaching squads. SI says that there has been no debate on whether killings by these squads are compatible with either international human rights law or the right to life guaranteed by most constitutions.
“The purpose of this letter is to ask you to expressly confirm that the principles enunciated in your report fully apply to the “war” against the IWT, and that in no circumstances is it legally permissible to kill or attempt to kill someone merely because he is suspected of having poached a wild animal. It should make no difference for these purposes that the animal may belong to an endangered species,” reads the SI letter, referring by the abbreviation, to ‘illegal wildlife trade.’
SI says that the shoot-on-sight policy “appears” to be practised in Kenya, Tanzania, Botswana, Swaziland and a host of other countries: “We say “appears” because usually the policy is not defined by any law, or even written down. As a consequence, nobody knows when wildlife officers are permitted to use lethal force against them, and it is impossible for dependents to hold to account officers whom they believe to have killed without good reason. Many countries have gone further, and granted wildlife officers immunity from prosecution.”
In the particular case of Botswana, this policy was explained the Minister of Environment, Natural Resources, Conservation and Tourism, Tshekedi Khama, to Tom Hardy, a British film-maker. According to Khama, citizens are not exempt from this policy which the Botswana media more appropriately terms “shoot to kill” because its aim is to kill. The minister said even if suspected poachers surrendered, they will still be killed. Speaking about this policy and its specific application to foreign poachers, Tshekedi, who is the president’s younger brother, stated: “That is a position we adopted to send a clear message to say, if you want to come and poach in Botswana, one of the possibilities is that you may not go back to your country alive.”
Interestingly, poachers themselves are said to be using the same policy because upon encountering game scouts, they shoot to kill. A game scout source says that when these two parties (literally) cross paths, greetings are typically exchanged in between the rattle of machine gun fire and lobbing of hand grenades.