Dignity & Democracy
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    A HRDF Blog

    Police lethal force and the need for global monitoring

    Posted by ccld201

    13 June 2024

    On 13th May 2024, a new internet resource was launched to support global monitoring of police lethal force. The Monitoring Lethal Force website is intended to bolster global mechanisms of accountability for deaths connected with uses of force in policing and law enforcement activities. The product of an extensive research project with numerous academic contributors worldwide, the website reflects the double-edged nature of policing and the importance of accountability in the democratic context.

    The work of police and law enforcement officials reflects a tension within liberal democracies under the rule of law. Democratic states should in principle seek to ensure peaceful and secure living conditions and to safeguard the rights and dignity of all those within their territory, but this involves empowering state agents to uphold the law and prevent crime and disorder, which can require the use of coercive or defensive force. Policing and law enforcement officials can therefore represent a vital source of protection, and a potential danger to the physical integrity and even life of those affected by their activities. To minimise and circumscribe that danger, international human rights law is intended to impose constraints on state action.

    The core of the right to life, the most basic and foundational human right, is the prohibition on arbitrary killing by the state.[1] This prohibition recognises that the right to life is not absolute and that in some circumstances it can be permissible for the state to take life, provided that a use of lethal force is lawful, necessary and proportionate. Human rights law and other related provisions on the use of force in policing and law enforcement[2] have extended these constraints to the regulation, planning, control and investigation of lethal force, to establish minimum standards of good practice. However, human rights law does not guarantee complete protection and as numerous incidents of police lethal force have shown in recent years — for example in the USA, France, Kenya and Brazil — such deaths can raise serious concerns about policing in the democratic context and shine a spotlight on the operation of democracy and the rule of law.

    Due to the value of human life, the finality of death, and the wider impact on society when the state is connected with a (violent) fatality, holding those responsible for lethal force accountable for their actions is vitally important for upholding democratic oversight of state conduct. Accountability involves a requirement that an individual or institution gives an account of their activities to whomsoever is entitled to know about them, so as to explain and give reasons for what has been done.[3] In principle in liberal democracies, accountability is both a means and an end: the accountability of public institutions contributes to achieving open and responsible governance systems that are subordinate to law and to those whom they are supposed to serve (the ‘demos’), and an inherently beneficial outcome demonstrating that democratic processes have been achieved. Accountability for policing and law enforcement is an important mechanism for ensuring that officials exercise their considerable powers in ways that are grounded in and constrained by law, restrained and non-discriminatory in their use, and that officials can reflect, learn and improve if something goes wrong. Accountability is essential if police officials are to retain their supposedly defining attributes of public consent and perceived legitimacy, serving the public with mutual respect rather than being a repressive or authoritarian imposition.

    However, forms and degrees of accountability for police lethal force vary around the world, due to divergent forms of policing and accountability practices within liberal democratic systems, different operational contexts and resourcing parameters, and because not all systems are liberal democratic to the same extent, if at all. International human rights law plays an important role in limiting states’ resort to lethal force, but it sets minimum standards, compliance with it varies significantly, and it does not cover all aspects of accountability for deaths in connection with policing and law enforcement. These differences and limitations, as well as a relative lack of information about the incidence of and accountability for police lethal force around the world, give rise to a compelling need for global monitoring.

    Monitoring, or a process of recording and evaluating information in order to identify causes of concern, can be a way of plugging accountability gaps, or supporting accountability where it might be absent or inadequate. Fostering accountability through monitoring can be an area where non-state actors in civil society, such as academics and NGOs, play a significant role. In this respect, endeavours by civil society to monitor lethal force at the national level can be identified for instance in the USA and France, and at the regional level in Europe and Latin America and the Caribbean. Although global monitoring of lethal force in different contexts involves numerous challenges as well as opportunities, the prospect of comparative evaluations could significantly enhance accountability.

    To this end, the Monitoring Lethal Force website presents comparable reports on 13 jurisdictions worldwide, focusing on the context and organization of policing and law enforcement institutions, relevant international and national legal frameworks covering lethal force, national policies and practices relating to recording and responding to deaths connected with policing and law enforcement activities, and statistical indexes indicating the degree of use and abuse of lethal force. By collating and sharing this information through an open-access online resource, the website aims to enhance international efforts to hold states to account for police lethal force through comparative analysis. Ultimately, this global monitoring initiative is intended to encourage critical discussion and reflection, to support learning and improvement, and where possible to contribute to reducing numbers of deaths.

    Stephen Skinner is Professor of Comparative Legal History and Legal Theory in the Law School, University of Exeter, UK. He has published several articles and a monograph (2019) on the state’s use of lethal force and the right to life under the European Convention on Human Rights. He is a member of the team behind the Monitoring Lethal Force website.

    [1] International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights 1966, Article 6 and regional provisions including the European Convention on Human Rights 1950, Article 2.

    [2] UN Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials, 1979; UN Principles on the Effective Prevention and Investigation of Extra-Legal, Arbitrary and Summary Executions, 1989; UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, 1990; UN Manual on the Effective Prevention and Investigation of Extra-Legal, Arbitrary and Summary Executions, 1991 revised 2016.

    [3] R. Mulgan, Holding Power to Account: Accountability in Modern Democracies (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003); M. Bovens, R.E. Goodin and T. Schillemans (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Public Accountability (OUP, 2014).


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