Preventing police from misusing their guns

Guns and Policing: Standards to prevent misuse focuses on what governments should be doing to control the use of guns by their police forces. The report has been written by Amnesty International for the Control Arms Campaign and is the first in a series of short thematic reports to be produced for Amnesty International, Oxfam and the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA) during the campaign. The Control Arms Campaign is a global campaign aimed at making people safe from armed violence.

'Amnesty International's report is a timely call for accountability in the use of firearms by state law-enforcement officials. The role of police in our communities is to serve the public good and their use of arms must be in line with that role. International standards are clear: firearms should be the exception in policing and not the rule. Firearms are only to be used when strictly unavoidable to protect life. The power to carry arms brings with it an enormous responsibility to use them legitimately. This report should be required reading by police in every country,' said Barbara Frey, UN Special Rapporteur on Small Arms and Human Rights.

'International standards do exist to control the use of guns and other methods of force by police and law enforcement officials - but in too many countries around the world these standards are not being followed,' Amnesty International said.

Standards include the UN Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials and the UN Basic Principles for the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials. At their heart is the question of what constitutes legitimate force.

'Police must sometimes be permitted to use force or lethal force, in order to do their job of keeping communities safe. But the force used must not be arbitrary; it must be proportionate, necessary and lawful. And it must only be used in self-defence or against the imminent threat of death or serious life-threatening injury,' said a police firearms expert advising the Campaign.

Police must therefore know how to assess when a threat to life is being made. They need to be trained in tactical threat assessment so that they can judge in each different context whether a use of force, including lethal force, will be proportionate, necessary and lawful.

'Too many police forces around the world are trained in how to fire a gun, but not in how to decide whether it should be fired, or when. And too few governments have incorporated the UN standards in their national legislation, or show any respect for them in practice,' Amnesty International said.

'In many countries the resources made available to equip and train police, as well as to make sure they are fully accountable, are insufficient. They are ill-equipped to curb the proliferation of guns in communities, and communities cannot trust their local police forces when officers use unjustified force against them. The unjustified use of lethal force by the police increases the likelihood that communities will want to stay armed in order to protect themselves.' Examples abound of how these police firearms standards are not being met:

  • In Timor Leste, the UN set up and trained the new police service, but training was initially limited to only three months. While officers were taught technical skills that enabled them to aim and fire a gun, they received little or no training that would enable them to assess threats or exercise restraint consistent with the UN standards. Moreover, there is no effective oversight and accountability mechanisms for the police.
  • The UN Code of Conduct states amongst other things that law enforcement agencies 'should be representative of and responsive and accountable to the community as a whole'. Yet repeated testimony from the poorest communities in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for example, shows that policing practice discriminates violently against them, with frequently fatal consequences.
  • The UN Basic Principles state that firearms should only be used by police in self-defence or against the imminent threat of death or serious injury. In Jamaica, which has the highest rate of police shootings per capita in the world, evidence repeatedly contradicts police claims that they were fired upon first and indicates instead a disturbing pattern of extrajudicial executions.

However, there are some encouraging examples of good practice which the report highlights:

  • South Africa has recently changed an apartheid-era law that permitted police to shoot at suspected thieves, drug dealers, fleeing suspects and others posing no direct threat to the lives of the police or public.
  • In Cambodia, an EU-funded project is improving secure storage for police weapons.

Amnesty International, IANSA and Oxfam are urging governments around the world to:

  • Support and promote the incorporation into law and practice of the UN standards on the use of force and firearms by law enforcement officials, as requested by the UN Special Rapporteur on Small Arms and Human Rights, Barbara Frey.
  • Promote adherence to UN Standards On The Use Of Force And Firearms By Law Enforcement Officials in the UN Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All its Aspects, which will be discussed in 2005 and reviewed in 2006.
  • Assess recipient states' adherence to the UN policing standards when considering whether to export or supply arms to forces or agencies involved in law enforcement. Governments should not supply firearms, ammunition or other weapons if there is a risk of abuse.
  • 'Bilateral and institutional donors also have an important role to play in ensuring that police adhere to international standards for the use of firearms and to find out detailed information on any international assistance projects on policing that they fund,' Amnesty International said.

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