Research with an Impact

The Relevance of the UN Human Rights Guidance on Less-Lethal Weapons

5 June 2020

Current protests in the United States (US) and elsewhere, or measures taken in the context of the COVID-19 show the relevance of the United Nations Human Rights Guidance on Less-Lethal Weapons in Law Enforcement.

This document – the outcome of research and broad consultations carried out under the auspices of the Geneva Academy and the University of Pretoria and its Centre for Human Rights – provides direction on what constitutes lawful and responsible design, production, transfer, procurement, testing, training, deployment, and use of less-lethal weapons and related equipment.

Use of Less-Lethal Weapons in Law Enforcement

As recent protests in the US but also elsewhere – Hong Kong, Iraq or Chile to cite a few –demonstrate, use of force during assemblies can raise major challenges under international human rights law.

In these contexts, law enforcement officials frequently use less-lethal weapons – such as police batons, chemical irritants like pepper spray and tear gas, electroshock weapons such as TASER, and water cannon. These are defined in the Guidance as weapons whose ordinary use offers a substantially reduced risk of death when compared to conventional firearms.

In an opinion piece published in the Washington Post, Agnes Callamard, United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, precisely refers to the UN Guidance and its relevance to the current US protests and response by the security forces.

‘This new Guidance, issued in 2019, meets an important need. It provides crucial guidance to states and law enforcement agencies, private security companies, police oversight bodies, and human rights defenders regarding the lawful use of less-lethal weapons’ underlines Professor Marco Sassòli, Director of the Geneva Academy.

COVID-19 Measure and the Relevance of the UN Guidance

In an EJIL:Talk blog post, Abi Dymond and Neil Corney – two experts who participated in the Academic Working Group we’ve put in place to help the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights develop the Guidance – discuss the relevance of the UN Guidance to the measures taken in relation to the COVID-10 pandemic.

‘Their article notably shows the relevance of the UN Guidance in contexts where law enforcement agencies are tasked with enforcing lockdowns, quarantine and social distancing measures’ underlines Professor Sassòli.

TASER of a police officer

Positive Impact and Use of Our Research

In their blog post, Abi Dymond and Neil Corney also highlight that the UN Guidance has already been referred to by oversight and human rights bodies, states and other actors worldwide, including in Chile, Georgia, Hong Kong, Iraq, Jamaica and elsewhere.

‘It is very encouraging to see that this document, which is not even one-year-old, has already been referred to in so many different contexts and by different actors. This is exactly what our research aims at: to make it relevant for, known and used by those who should apply it. We expect that more and more civil society organizations but also law enforcement agencies and oversight and human rights bodies will refer to it and use it in order to ensure the appropriate use of force and accountability’ stresses Professor Sassòli.

‘This June, the UN Human Rights Council will debate its biennial resolution on peaceful protest and we hope that the UN Guidance will be equally helpful and reflected in this document and discussions around peaceful protests’ adds Felix Kirchmeier, Executive Director of the Geneva Human Rights Platform.

National Day of Protests Against Racism & Political Repression Caravan / March down Maryland Avenue at 20th Street in Baltimore, Maryland on Saturday afternoon, 30 May 2020

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