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United Nations: Report on Use of Lethal Force in Making Arrests

(Nov. 3, 2011) Christof Heyns, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, and arbitrary executions, stated on October 20, 2011, in presenting a report to the U.N. General Assembly, that states' law enforcement officers must observe international standards on the use of lethal force. He stressed that those standards “provide adequate room for States to pursue their legitimate security interests, both at home and abroad,” and that “[a]busing them to meet short-term needs, especially in counter-terrorism operations, could do long-term damage to the protection of human rights.” (UN Human Rights Expert Questions Targeted Killings and Use of Lethal Force, UN NEWS CENTRE (Oct. 20, 2011).) Heyns added that states may take away life only in order to protect other lives. (Id.)

The new report reviews the national legislation on arrest procedures in more than 100 countries. In many of them, Heyns stressed, the test for whether law enforcement may shoot a fleeing suspect still depends only on the severity of the offense committed, rather than on the potential harm the person poses for society as a whole. It is not enough, he stated, to base the use of lethal force on “the reasonable suspicion that the suspect has committed a crime involving serious violence, or has threatened to do so”; for police to employ deadly force, “there must be an immediate or ongoing threat to the public if the person were to escape.” (Id.) The Special Rapporteur said that firearms should not be used, for example, to stop a suspected thief or a person guilty of a crime of passion who poses no ongoing threat. (Id.)

Heyns also commented on targeted killings by states, calling “highly problematic,” the practice, for purposes of killing an opponent, of the use of drones and raids into countries in which no recognized armed conflict exists. “The use of such methods by some States … raises the question why other States should not engage in the same practices,” he stated. “The danger is one of a global war without borders, in which no one is safe,” and he urged the international community to conduct a serious debate on the issue. (Id.)

It may be noted that in May 2011, the Special Rapporteur submitted a report on his activities over the past year that also reviewed the legal norms of 76 countries related to freedom of assembly and the use of lethal force during demonstrations. He concluded “that many domestic legal systems do not adhere to international standards in respect of the right to freedom of assembly, and the use of force during demonstrations,” and he put forward some recommendations aimed at enhancing compliance with international standards. One recommendation was that the basic principles for managing demonstrations be elaborated, to set out more clearly the applicable international law standards for non-violent and violent, legal and illegal demonstrations, with special reference to the use of deadly force by the police during such gatherings, and that a model law be drafted on the management of protest and the use of force in demonstrations. (Report of the Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, Christof Heyns, U.N. Doc. A/HRC/17/28 (May 23, 2011).)