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More should be done to prevent unlawful or arbitrary killings

The Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Philip Alston has presented his final reports to the current Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva.  Alston, who has held the mandate for six years, offered a report detailing activities and working methods over that time and identified priority issues for future research.

Philip Alston retires after six years in the mandate ©The Special Rapporteur also produced a further three studies, on accountability for killings by police, election-related killings and targeted killings.

Alston says in terms of real impact, he believes the mandate, provided by the Council has managed through its broad range of activities to have a considerable impact.  This is despite many difficulties, including the refusal of some States to agree to visits and to respond to communications.

“Lives have been saved, lethal practices have been abandoned, greater caution has been shown, and awareness of the issues has grown at all levels,” Alston said. However, he cautioned that more could be done to prevent unlawful or arbitrary killings around the world and he says more effective accountability mechanisms should be put in place when they do occur.

In examining the way the mandate functions, Alston has reviewed the established working methods of the special procedures system and has made detailed recommendations for reform.

One of the principal activities of the Special Rapporteur is to communicate with Governments about alleged cases of unlawful or arbitrary killings.  The response rate to his communications has been poor, Alston says.  Nonetheless he finds them to be very useful in that they raise international awareness of specific incidents and encourage Governmental attention. 

“They create a regular and ongoing system of monitoring State behaviour, generate a record of abuses over time, provide clarity on the circumstances of specific incidents and give States an opportunity to set the record straight,” he says. “The communications can also shed light on the interpretation of applicable law, promote accountability and encourage measures to reduce future killings.”

But it is clear, he says, that there’s a need to consider how to make the procedure more effective, both in engaging States in dialogue and bringing relief in individual cases. 

Another central feature of the work of the special procedures mandate holders is fact-finding missions to various countries.  During his six year term, Alston visited 14 countries with the aim, he says, of understanding and explaining the dynamics of unlawful or arbitrary killings and to propose constructive and specific reforms to reduce killings and eliminate impunity. 

The requests for country visits, however, are often ignored or delayed for years, according to the report.  Information collected by Alston indicates that more than 70 percent of the 52 countries contacted either did not respond at all, or did not approve the request.  Alston says this should be a matter of grave concern to the Council.

In his most recent reports to the 14th session of the Council, the Special Rapporteur considered election-related violence and killing, “a widespread phenomenon which does not receive sufficient direct attention.”  Alston has recommended that the Human Rights Council ask for an annual report from the High Commissioner documenting such cases and the measures taken in response.

In a second report to the 14th session, Alston examined extrajudicial killings by police.  It is a pervasive problem, he says, and one of its most important causes is impunity.  The Special Rapporteur’s principal recommendation is that countries should consider external police oversight mechanisms to complement the range of other oversight systems which should be in place. 

In his report, Alston emphasizes that international human rights law requires government to provide accountability for unlawful or arbitrary killings and other human rights abuses committed by the police.  Those responsible, he says must be investigated, prosecuted, convicted and punished.

The subject of the third of Alston’s most recent thematic reports is targeted killings.  “They are increasingly used in circumstances which violate the relevant rules of international law.  The international community needs to be more forceful in demanding accountability,” he says.

Over the time he has held the mandate, Alston has examined a wide range of unlawful or arbitrary killings, including by law enforcement officers and other security forces, killings during armed conflict, during counter-terrorism operations, deaths in custody, the death penalty, the issue of impunity and reparations for victims and their families.  Much remains to be done. He recommends that in future  investigations be held into amongst others, sexual violence and unlawful killing, crime scenes and forensic evidence and United Nations peacekeeping and multinational force operations. 

In his brief, final address to the Human Rights Council, the Special Rapporteur paid tribute to the human rights defenders who have helped him in the many countries in which he has worked.  Referring to their “amazing courage and dedication”, Alston noted that, “Many face death on a daily basis in struggling to protect human rights.”

7 July 2010