Press Release

IACHR Calls on States in the Americas to Implement Democratic, Participatory Citizen Security Policies That Center on Protecting the Individual

September 25, 2020

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Washington, D.C. - The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has noted with concern that certain tendencies toward illegitimate restrictions and arbitrary citizen security initiatives have emerged in some states in the Americas, leading to situations of violence and human rights violations. The IACHR called on states to respect and guarantee the exercise of human rights by strengthening democratic, participatory citizen security policies that center on protecting human individuals.

Since late 2019 and so far in 2020, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the IACHR has warned of increasing militarization in the region, the excessive use of police and military forces during social demonstrations and protests against criminal activity, and arbitrary detentions. These practices run counter to the obligations that member states have voluntarily agreed to, according to which the priorities of public policies concerning citizen security should be efficient institutional structures that respect and guarantee the effective exercise of human rights by preventing violations of these and controlling violence and crime.

With regard to citizen security policies, the IACHR has noted some concerning situations in which regulations have been adopted that allow the armed forces to take part in citizen security-related tasks and public announcements have been made authorizing security agents to use lethal force. The IACHR reiterates that human rights obligations establish that any involvement of the armed forces in citizen security tasks must be exceptional, extraordinary, subordinate, and complementary to the work of civilian security forces. Such involvement should be regulated through legal mechanisms and protocols on the use of force and adequately supervised by competent, independent, technically appropriate civilian agencies. Likewise, the use of lethal force should be the last resort to be employed by security agents for their own protection. It may only be used when it is the only possible way of protecting other human life and there are no other less harmful means available to repel the aggression in question. Consequently, unrestricted or advance authorization of the use of lethal force is not accepted in international human rights law.

The IACHR has closely followed the escalation of police and military violence during demonstrations and social protests that has led to deaths, serious injuries, and the arbitrary arrest of protesters and third parties. The IACHR reminds states of their duty to guarantee freedom of expression and the right to peaceful assembly, especially for groups that suffer discrimination and have historically been silenced. The IACHR condemns the disproportionate use of police force and has called on the states of the Americas to conduct thorough investigations into the circumstances in which this has occurred and to impose appropriate punishments on those responsible for it.

In response to the recurrence of such events, the IACHR reiterates that, in accordance with inter-American standards, during social process states must ensure that their security forces have access to weapons, ammunition, and protective equipment that allow them to adapt their reaction appropriately to the situation in which they are intervening, generating effective, appropriate safeguards against arbitrary action. On this point, the IACHR notes that so-called less-lethal weapons are being widely used by various police forces in the region during social protests and warns that the disproportionate use of these can have very serious consequences for personal integrity and human life. On the matter of weapons or deterrents of this sort, another problematic issue is the use of devices with indiscriminate effects such as weapons that fire multiple projectiles, regardless of whether these are rubber, teargas or other aggressive chemicals, or sounds. The IACHR stresses that state officials are obliged to observe the principles of legality, absolute necessity, and proportionality at all times.

The IACHR recalls that the way that some people may act at demonstrations does not preclude peaceful, unarmed demonstrators from exercising their right to freedom of assembly. It is states’ duty to protect demonstrators’ right to freedom of assembly and freedom of expression and to identify and isolate people who prevent them from fully exercising these. Isolated acts of violence do not automatically authorize police or military forces to break up or disperse demonstrations, nor do they exempt their agents from respecting international standards on the use of force.

With regard to the fight against crime, the IACHR notes with concern that several citizen security operations conducted by police and military police forces have entailed high levels of violence while arresting alleged criminals. These operations were carried out in the middle of the night and involved acts of violence, illegal searches, the indiscriminate use of firearms, and arbitrary detention. Generally speaking, these operations take place in marginalized areas that are inhabited by black populations or people living in poverty and generally affect young men, including adolescents.

In line with this situation, the IACHR has received information regarding the excessive use of force while detaining people on public thoroughfares in the outskirts of urban areas or marginalized neighborhoods. In the situations in question, security agents have resorted to the use of firearms as a first resort when carrying out their citizen security duties. The indiscriminate use of lethal force has led to unclarified situations of supposed crossfire with security agents in which people (including adolescents) who were walking peacefully through the area were killed. The IACHR underlines that the use of lethal force is not authorized for detaining a person who does not represent a real or imminent threat to agents or third parties.

With regard to measures to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, the IACHR has been informed of hundreds of arrests, the use of physical violence, and the use of firearms and so-called less-lethal weapons against people who allegedly violated these measures. In this regard, states should avoid arbitrary detentions while there are restrictions on the movement of people, and all detention should be subject to appropriate judicial review in accordance with human rights standards. The IACHR reiterated that states should take measures to combat the use of racial profiling of people of African descent and other explicit or implicit discriminatory practices based on ethnic or racial origin or socioeconomic status. Such practices run directly or indirectly counter to their international obligations regarding equality and nondiscrimination in connection with their duties to respect and guarantee the rights to life and integrity.

States should adopt accompanying measures to follow up on the use of force to ensure that the performance of public security agents is reviewed, and any disciplinary or criminal responsibilities are determined. All police actions must be recorded, and an accurate inventory must be kept of the weapons assigned to each officer. A clear chain of command must be established containing specifications regarding authorization of the use of force and an appropriate police communication system that records all operational orders that are issued.

In light of the above considerations, the IACHR urges all states in the Americas to step up their efforts to strengthen and consolidate citizen security-related institutions, policies, and practices to enable crime and violence to be prevented and controlled, with a focus on constructing democratic forms of citizenship that center on people and the exercise of human rights. The IACHR stresses the importance of ongoing training and education regarding human rights standards and how they apply to citizen security, especially in terms of the use of force by security agents.

A principal, autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for and to defend human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.

No. 231/20