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UN Report: Laws on Police Use of Lethal Force Need Reform

  • Lisa Schlein

Riot police fire tear gas towards supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood during a demonstration at Cairo University, Egypt, May 20, 2014.

Riot police fire tear gas towards supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood during a demonstration at Cairo University, Egypt, May 20, 2014.

A U.N. special investigator is calling for the urgent reform of laws on the use of lethal force by police. In a report to the U.N. Human Rights Council, he noted that police too often abuse the extensive powers they are given.

U.N. Special Investigator Christof Heyns is calling on governments around the world to launch a campaign to bring the laws of all states into line with international standards. He noted that too many laws on the books were enacted more than 100 years ago.

In African and Caribbean nations, he said many colonial laws are still in place. Heyns said they still come from the British Riot Act of 1714 or the French law of 1848.

"Essentially, it says that if 12 people are gathered and they refuse to disperse when told to do so, law enforcement officials may shoot with impunity. Or in the case of the former French colonies, or many of them, there must be three warnings with a drum and if people do not disperse, then the police may use fire arms," he said.

Heyns said these laws, which stem from the pre- human-rights era, must be made relevant to the contemporary world. He said they do not offer protections for demonstrators who may clash with the police, as happened in Tahrir Square in Egypt. He noted that laws governing protests in Egypt date back to the colonial era of 1914.

He said the extensive powers enjoyed by the police can be easily abused in any society around the world. He told VOA statistics show how dangerous the excessive use of force can be.

"One out of every 25 violent deaths in the world are caused by law enforcement officials. In some cases, of course, justifiably so," said Heyns. "It is a duty to protect people. In some cases, they cannot do so without using force. But, the overall figure is that in 2011, which is the last date for which we had the figures -- this is worldwide -- that 21,000 people were killed by law enforcement officials of an overall estimate of around 500,000 violent deaths in the world."

Heyns said in most societies, police who use excessive force tend to justify their actions by claiming they are fighting terrorism. He said demonstrators who are killed often are branded as terrorists.

The U.N. investigator does not deny the importance of countering terrorism. He said this becomes an easy justification, however, for the use of deadly force, especially in states that lack a proper system of accountability. He said it essentially becomes a license to kill.

Heyns said lethal force by the police can be reduced if laws are put in place that accord with international standards. He said police must be trained in proper crowd control. Finally, he noted that police who are given equipment to protect themselves from potentially violent protesters will feel less threatened and will not be so quick to shoot.
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