In September of 1990, the Eighth United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders adopted the Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials. This international legal document seeks to provide basic international standards and protocol for how law enforcement programs within UN Member States should operate in regards to using violence, up to and including using lethal force. Special Provision 9 of the document reads as follows:
Law enforcement officials shall not use firearms against persons except in self-defence or defence of others against the imminent threat of death or serious injury, to prevent the perpetration of a particularly serious crime involving grave threat to life, to arrest a person presenting such a danger and resisting their authority, or to prevent his or her escape, and only when less extreme means are insufficient to achieve these objectives. In any event, intentional lethal use of firearms may only be made when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life.
It is immediately apparent that this provision is frequently violated. Breonna Taylor, Philando Castile, Daniel Shaver, and countless others have lost their lives to wanton and absolutely avoidable uses of lethal force by American law enforcement officials. But this is not a problem unique to the United States. Around the world, police brutality and hostility are on the rise. To highlight this phenomenon, we’re going to look at two different countries with two different manifestations of violent police misconduct: Brazil and Belarus. In order to effectively confront this global threat, we need global effort, education, action, and solidarity; gaining a broader perspective on the scope of the problem is a critical first step.
This reflects a critical dimension of global police brutality: Marginalized communities suffer the worst of it. Whether it’s members of racial or other identity-based groups that are systemically oppressed, people in poorer areas with few opportunities for economic mobility, or people experiencing homelessness (who are frequently subjected to police harassment or use of force while trying to survive)—those who already face disadvantages in other aspects of life are also those most affected by police violence and mistreatment.
These issues can be exacerbated when heads of state or other powerful government officials are either complicit in or openly endorse acts of police violence. In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro has consistently favored a “tough-on-crime” approach. At the end of 2019, Bolsonaro pardoned an undisclosed number of police officers who had been convicted of unlawful use of force, even homicide. This approach of enabling law enforcement to commit extrajudicial violence and killings has been gaining traction in a number of countries, whether (ostensibly) as a response to crime such as in Brazil, or as a more overtly political tactic such as in Belarus.
This past March, Belarussian police arrested over 400 people tied to Freedom Day protests against the Alexander Lukashenko government. Many citizens of Belarus, as well as international observers and experts, feel that Lukashenko’s most recent re-election victory in 2020 was illegitimate, with the election being tightly controlled and political suppression running rampant. Since then, frequent protests and opposition demonstrations have been met with imprisonment, brutality, and inhumane treatment during detention from the nation’s law enforcement.
This is a very different example of law enforcement acting unlawfully in coordination with an authoritarian head of state, but similarly disturbing and dangerous. This sort of collaboration makes accountability for perpetrators of police violence even less possible, compared with excessive force in pursuit of a community’s shared goal, such as being “tough on crime.” Lukashenko is a long-standing autocratic leader who has shown no desire to bolster multi-party or multi-candidate democracy in elections; the odds of his government enacting consequences for the law enforcement officials who are willing to take extrajudicial, violent action in his regime’s defense are zero.
This is not to suggest that blatant autocracies are the only countries where this sort of collaboration occurs. From President Duterte of the Philippines openly employing and encouraging extrajudicial killings in the name of his war on drugs, to President Macron of France decrying police brutality while his government pushes for anti-transparency laws against recording law enforcement officers, the interests of the state and those in power will always end up being used to justify and protect law enforcement—whether it’s done openly and loudly or behind closed doors.
Whether it’s met with open endorsement or willful ignorance, the global, systemic nature of police brutality is why we need strong international institutions, laws, and norms. First of all we need an international database of police brutality. The database can then be studied to develop remedies, for instance ensuring that police who violate human rights are dismissed and not rehired. International study of what works and what doesn’t can help. Portugal, for example, has completely decriminalized all drug possession, with very positive results that can be replicated elsewhere. Most European nations’ police don’t routinely carry firearms—and never carry them when off duty. This practice, if employed in the U.S. and elsewhere, could drastically reduce the number of homicides committed by police officers. These allow for countries to hold one another accountable, and to demand that every government works in the best interests of its people. International systems with accountability structures could prevent police brutality, such that safety and human rights do not depend on individual political leaders who might stop caring when it suits them.
We have seen a disturbing trend of law enforcement militarization and brutality in recent years. At the same time, information surrounding these instances has gotten more and more accessible. If it hadn’t been for 17-year-old Darnella Frazier's recording the scene, it is almost certain that Derek Chauvin would never have faced consequences for killing George Floyd. From on-the-ground citizen reporting’s saving lives in war-torn areas, to political crowdsourcing’s fighting back against censorship-heavy governments, we have the capacity to work as global citizens for the rights of each and every person like never before. But this means that we have to act, and we have to act now. Staying informed is the first step, and international institutions such as the United Nations are one of the best ways we can keep pressing forward this world dialogue about building fairer, more just law enforcement.
The UU@UN is hosting a panel discussion at 3 pm EDT on Tuesday, July 20, 2021 focused on International Human Rights, Extrajudicial Killings, and Demilitarizing the Police. Sign up now to attend this webinar.