Police brutality reaches torture levels during the Covid-19 pandemic

News release

Geneva, 17 March 2021

The enforcement of Covid-19 related restrictions has dangerously increased police violence worldwide, according to a new briefing report published today by the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT). The report highlights the need to apply the international legal anti-torture framework to counter this alarming trend, which is not limited to authoritarian countries.

While torture and other forms of ill-treatment often take place in detention, they can increasingly be seen on the streets of cities from Moscow to Minneapolis, at checkpoints, to disperse protests, during curfew enforcements or at countries’ borders. In each of these cases, law enforcement officials use brutal methods and dangerous weapons. Examples include the 2019 use of rubber bullets in Chile that led to over 200 people losing their sight, the killing of George Floyd in the United States, the brutal repression of public demonstrations in Algeria, Belarus, Colombia, Hong Kong, Iraq, Myanmar, Nigeria or Russia.

«Police brutality is nothing new, but the policing of the sanitary emergency has provided law enforcement with increased powers, which have in turn led to a spike in the abuse against citizens and worsened the lack of accountability», said OMCT Secretary General Gerald Staberock. «Another aggravating factor has been the lack of monitoring by civil society, as Covid-19 restrictions often prevent human rights groups from operating in the field». The victims tend to be marginalized groups such as racial and ethnic minorities, migrants, and the poorest members of society.

Weapons used for crowd control have become more diverse over recent years and included in some instances military grade weaponry. This has resulted in severe health consequences. Supposedly “non-lethal” weapons, such as tasers or stun grenades, can also cause severe injuries, lasting disabilities, or even death. The indiscriminate use of chemical irritants – such as tear gas – can be risky for vulnerable people. Additionally, it helps propagate Covid-19.

The report is the result of a recent briefing organised by the OMCT for the members of the United Nations Committee Against Torture, with the participation of several other prominent experts with legal, medical and field experience. Participants discussed both challenges and best practices in applying legal protections against torture to the use of force by law enforcement officials outside custody.

One success story is a 2020 landmark Supreme Court ruling in Colombia that enjoins the authorities to protect demonstrators and the right to peaceful assembly. Legal action by human rights groups contributed to the ruling, which bans the use of a certain type of gun that had led to several deaths and injuries among demonstrators.

The briefing makes a series of recommendations that go from the need to clarify when and what weapons should be allowed for crowd control to the urgency of addressing and sanctioning police brutality as form of torture or other ill-treatment.

Read the briefing report in English, French and Spanish.

The World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) is the largest global NGO group actively standing up to torture and protecting human rights defenders worldwide. It has more than 200 members in 90 countries. Its international Secretariat is based in Geneva, Switzerland.

For more information, please contact :
Iolanda Jaquemet, Director of Communications

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