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UN experts call for an end to police brutality worldwide

11 August 2021

GENEVA (11 August 2021) – Independent United Nations human rights experts* issued the following joint statement, to express their alarm at what they describe as a “rampant police brutality against peaceful protesters worldwide” and warned States of the grave danger arising from such abuse for human rights and the rule of law.

“In recent months and years, we have repeatedly voiced our concern over a steady increase in the use of excessive force, police brutality, and other forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, as well as arbitrary detention, against predominantly peaceful protesters in all regions of the world. This trend, often extending to journalists covering protests, has resulted in countless deaths and injuries, often exacerbated through torture, sexual violence, arbitrary detention, and enforced disappearance, and has intimidated, traumatized, and antagonised large segments of society worldwide.

The vast majority of these incidents are rooted in political, socio-economic, ethnic, racial, religious, or other tensions specific to particular national or regional situations. At the same time, there are also relevant, more generic contexts of global reach and underlying reasons of racism, gender-based and other forms of discrimination in law enforcement. Large-scale migration, protests of climate activists, human rights defenders, indigenous peoples and, more recently, the Black Lives Matter movement are affected by excessive use of force and police brutality. Additionally, since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been numerous reports of security forces employing excessive and often indiscriminate violence resulting in unlawful deaths, injury and psychological trauma, as well as arbitrary detentions, in order to enforce emergency measures for the protection of public health, such asbans on assemblies, lockdowns and curfews.

Most worryingly, throughout all regions and contexts, these acts of violence and abuse have often been encouraged by divisive, discriminatory and inflammatory narratives spread or condoned by political leaders, local authorities, and parts of the media, and by the resulting atmosphere of near complete impunity for perpetrators. This flagrant lack of accountability has further fuelled tensions and has given rise to a growing sense of powerlessness, fear, and resentment, not only among victims and their relatives, but throughout the most vulnerable and politically exposed parts of the population.

This phenomenon is symptomatic of a worrying trend towards the increasing militarization of law enforcement officials and their equipment, training, and rules of engagement, including on the use of force and coercion. As a result, in many contexts, law enforcement officials now display an attitude, appearance and mode of operation which is more readily associated with a hostile military force than with serving and protecting the general public. When law enforcement officials treat their own population as a potential enemy, growing segments of society will soon be antagonized and, in turn, begin to perceive their own government and its police forces as their enemy. At the same time, authorities often unfairly put law enforcement personnel into extremely difficult and dangerous operational circumstances, expecting them to enforce laws, policies, and regulations through violence and intimidation rather than making the required political efforts at defusing tensions through dialogue.

It is the prime responsibility of governments and political leaders to prevent such dangerous developments through non-violent means including, most notably, pro-active communication aiming at de-escalation, reconciliation, and the peaceful exercise of civil and political rights.

Undisputedly, illegal conduct, including attacks on law enforcement personnel and public or private property cannot be tolerated in any society governed by the rule of law, and the authorities are both entitled and obliged to enforce applicable laws and regulations. However, they must always do so with the utmost restraint and in strict compliance with established international human rights standards including the general principle of proportionality, the right to life and the universal, absolute and non-derogable prohibition of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. The prohibition of torture is universally recognised as a jus cogens norm, which must be respected and protected under all circumstances, including in times of international and non-international armed conflict or disturbance and tension or any other public emergency. Equally, the prohibitions of arbitrary detention and arbitrary deprivation of life are absolute and cannot be derogated from in any circumstances.

As the Human Rights Council has acknowledged, “public confidence in police and other law enforcement officials is paramount for their ability to perform their functions effectively and depends on, inter alia, their respect for the human rights, fundamental freedoms and human dignity of all persons” (A/HRC/46/L.27). There is also universal consensus that law enforcement officials shall fulfil the duty imposed upon them by law at all times, by serving the community and by protecting all persons against illegal acts, consistent with the high degree of responsibility required by their profession. 1 This means that, when confronted with unlawful acts – whether mere misdemeanours and civil disobedience, or violence and other forms of serious criminality - law enforcement officers must be trained, equipped and instructed to show restraint and moderation, avoiding any unnecessary resort to force and coercion.

Whenever absolutely unavoidable, any use of force by law enforcement officials must meet the following four requirements: 1) Legality: any use of force must pursue a lawful purpose and respect equal treatment of all persons before the law in accordance with the principle of non-discrimination; 2) Necessity: force must only be used when, and to the extent, strictly necessary for the achievement of a lawful purpose, noting that lethal force may only be used when unavoidable to protect against grievous bodily harm or an imminent threat to life; 3) Proportionality: the harm likely to be inflicted by the use of force must not be excessive compared to the benefit of the lawful purpose pursued, and 4) Precaution: law enforcement operations must always be planned, prepared and conducted so as to minimize, to the greatest extent possible, the resort to force and, whenever it becomes unavoidable, to minimize the resulting harm. Even exceptional circumstances such as internal political instability or any other public emergency may not be invoked to justify any departure from these basic principles. 2

The jurisprudence of international and regional human rights mechanisms has consistently confirmed that any use of force by State officials failing to meet any of these requirements amounts to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment and may violate the right to life and, therefore, is absolutely prohibited in all circumstances without exception. The same applies to certain weapons, substances and other means of law enforcement which, by nature or design, must be regarded as inherently cruel, inhuman or degrading. 3

States have an international legal duty to regulate the use of force by law enforcement officials in line with these principles, to take effective measures with a view to preventing any violations, and to provide victims and their relatives with adequate gender-sensitive redress and rehabilitation. States are further obliged to promptly, effectively and impartially investigate all allegations of arbitrary killing, of enforced disappearances, and of torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, wherever there is reasonable ground to believe that such an act has been committed, and to hold accountable those who encourage, instigate, order, tolerate, acquiesce in, consent to or perpetrate such acts, in a manner commensurate with the gravity of the offence. In order to support the judicial and investigative authorities in this task and to ensure transparency and the absence of collusion and conflicts of interest, States should establish institutionally and politically independent complaints and oversight mechanisms tasked with the monitoring and transparent reporting on the use of force by public officials, making this information accessible both to the judiciary and to the public, including statistics on when, against whom and through which means force has been used and on the resulting harm and measures of redress.

Public confidence in the reliability, legitimacy and integrity of State institutions and their law enforcement officials is the most valuable commodity of any peaceful, just and sustainable society and the very foundation of democracy and the rule of law. We therefore urge governments and political leaders not to needlessly squander the trust of their people, to refrain from any unwarranted violence, coercion and divisiveness, and to prioritize and promote dialogue, tolerance and diversity in the common public interest of all.”


The experts welcome the attention given to this important matter by the Human Rights Council at its 46th session and, in particular, to its Resolution “Torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment: the roles and responsibilities of police and other law enforcement officials” (A/HRC/46/L.27).

In addition to numerous communications on individual cases or contexts, the experts have repeatedly expressed concern over the general trend towards the increased use of excessive force in the management of assemblies including through dedicated reports to the General Assembly by the Special Rapporteur on Torture to the UN General Assembly on “Extra-custodial use of force and the prohibition of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment  or punishment” (A/72/178); and jointly by the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association and the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions on the proper management of assemblies (A/HRC/31/66).


* Mr. Nils Melzer, Special Rapporteur on Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment; Mr. Morris Tidball-Binz, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, and Mr. Clement Nyaletsossi Voulé, Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association.

This statement has been endorsed by:

Mr. Ahmed ShaheedSpecial Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief; Mr. Vitit Muntarbhorn, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia; Mr. Felipe González Morales, Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants; Mr Balakrishnan Rajagopal, Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing; Ms. Mary Lawlor,Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders; Mr. Javaid RehmanSpecial Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran; Ms. E. Tendayi Achiume, Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance; Ms. Fionnuala D. Ní Aoláin, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism; Mr.Francisco Cali Tzay,Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples; Mr. Yao Agbetse, Independent Expert on the situation of human rights in Central African Republic; Mr. Olivier De SchutterSpecial Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights; Mr. Diego García-Sayán, Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers; Ms. Isha Dyfan, Independent Expert on Somalia; Mr. S. Michael Lynk, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian Territory; Ms.Jelena Aparac (Chair Rapporteur)Ms.Lilian BobeaMs. Sorcha MacLeodMr. Chris Kwaja and Mr. Ravindran Daniel, Working Group on the use of mercenaries;  Ms. Elina Steinerte (Chair-Rapporteur), Dr. Miriam Estrada-Castillo (Vice-chairperson), Ms. Leigh ToomeyMr. Mumba Malila, and Mr. Priya Gopalan, Working Group on arbitrary detention; Ms. Cecilia Jimenez-DamarySpecial Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons; Mr. Alioune Tine, Independent Expert on the human rights situation in Mali; Mr.Marcos A. Orellana,  Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights; Dr. Mohamed Abdelsalam Babiker, Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Eritrea; Mr. Michael Fakhri, Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food; Dominique Day (Chairperson), Catherine S. Namakula, Miriam Ekiudoko, Sushil Raj,Working Group of Experts of People of African Descent; Mr Pedro Arrojo-Agudo, Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation; Ms. Irene Khan, Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Opinion and Expression, Mr. Fernand de Varennes, Special Rapporteur on minority issues, and Mr. Tae-Ung Baik (Chair), Mr. Henrikas Mickevičius, (Vice Chair), Ms. Aua BaldeMs. Gabriella Citroni  and Mr. Luciano HazanWorking Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances.

1 Article 1, UN Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials (1979).

2 Principle 8, UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials (1990).

3 Report of the Special Rapporteur on Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment to the General Assembly “Extra-custodial use of force and the prohibition of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”(A/72/178).