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UN human rights expert challenges ‘targeted killing’ policies

Targeted killings

21 October 2011

NEW YORK – (20 October 2011): States must respect international standards on the use of lethal force during arrest, said the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Christof Heyns.

“International standards provide adequate room for States to pursue their legitimate security interests, both at home and abroad. Abusing them to meet short-term needs, especially in counter-terrorism operations, could do long-term damage to the protection of human rights,” said Heyns while presenting to the United Nations General Assembly his report on the use of force by law enforcement officers during arrest or situations where arrest is a reasonable possibility.

He added that life may be taken by the State only in order to protect life.

The Special Rapporteur presented the results of a review of national legislation dealing with arrest in more than 100 countries. He emphasised that in many countries, the test whether a fleeing suspect may be shot still relates only to the severity of the offence committed and not to the potential harm that the person in question holds for society at large.

“While it is correct that lethal force should not be used unless there is a reasonable suspicion that the suspect has committed a crime involving serious violence, or has threatened to do so, that is not enough. For deadly force to be used by the police, there must be an immediate or ongoing threat to the public if the person were to escape,” he said.

Firearms, he said, should not be used to stop a suspected thief, or someone who has committed a crime of passion and does not pose an ongoing threat.

Turning to the issue of targeted killing, the Special Rapporteur said the current use of drones and raids into countries where there is not a recognised armed conflict to kill an opponent, such as in Pakistan or Yemen, is highly problematic. While these operations may be designed to hit a particular target, civilian casualties remain, and it is used on such a large scale that it can hardly be described as targeted.

“The use of such methods by some States to eliminate opponents in countries around the world raises the question why other States should not engage in the same practices. The danger is one of a global war without borders, in which no-one is safe,” Heyns said.

He called on the international community to engage in a serious debate on how to deal with this emerging and dangerous trend.

The Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Christof Heyns (South Africa), is Dean and Professor of Human Rights Law at the University of Pretoria, where he has also directed the Centre for Human Rights, and has engaged in wide-reaching initiatives on human rights in Africa. He has advised a number of international, regional and national entities on human rights issues. Mr. Heyns’ research interests include international human rights law and human rights law in Africa.

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