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Americas: Amnesty International launches five strategies for holding police to account

To end the rampant impunity for human rights violations committed by police across many parts of Latin America and Caribbean, governments must address this as a structural issue, applying appropriate protocols for investigation, scrutinizing the role of commanding officers, and working with civil society to introduce effective and independent accountability mechanisms, Amnesty International said in a new report published today.

Police in the spotlight: Towards police accountability for human rights violations in the Americas  summarizes the findings of a virtual regional conference supported by OSF Foundations, Amnesty International, the University of Essex Human Rights Centre and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and attended by almost 100 activists, academics, and public officials in January 2021.

“Our research over several years in Latin America and the Caribbean demonstrates that human rights violations by the police across the region are the norm, not an exception. The paper we launch today proposes five concrete approaches to ending impunity for these abuses. Our hope is it will be used as a practical guide for government officials and human rights practitioners alike, who want to find tangible ways to build a more just region.” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International.

The five key recommendations for states to address human rights violations by police across the region are: to introduce independent and effective mechanisms for police supervision and accountability; to acknowledge and strengthen the crucial role of civil society organizations and victims’ groups in police monitoring and accountability systems; to ensure that investigations into possible unlawful deaths at the hands of police are conducted in accordance with the Minnesota Protocol; to address unlawful police violence as a structural issue; and to set out clearly in laws and regulations the responsibility of commanding officers and other superiors for unlawful police violence.

Our research over several years in Latin America and the Caribbean demonstrates that human rights violations by the police across the region are the norm, not an exception

Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International

“None of these recommendations can be effective in isolation. But in combination, and with the wealth of determination and experience that exists in Latin America and the Caribbean, they can form a solid roadmap towards accountable, effective policing that protects the human rights of everyone. By following them, states can create a region where police abuses are an outlier rather than a trend,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas.

In recent years, Amnesty International has documented police using unlawful force to deter and disperse demonstrators in countries such as Chile, Colombia, Honduras and Venezuela; to enforce restrictions imposed to curb the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic; and in operations to control crime. Most of those suspected of criminal responsibility for these human rights violations enjoy almost total impunity. Indeed, in places such as Rio de Janeiro, the police are often a law unto themselves, investigating, detaining and sentencing people to death. Elsewhere, El Salvador not only has the highest homicide rate in the world, but also the highest rate of killings by police, which continue to rise.

Based on a longer paper compiled in Spanish, the new report notes that victims of excessive or otherwise unlawful use of force by police in Latin America and the Caribbean are disproportionately from communities who face structural discrimination, such as Indigenous and Afro-descendant people, migrants and refugees, those living in urban low-income neighbourhoods and LGBTIQ+ people.

While women may not be the direct targets of most police killings, they are often left to pick up the pieces when a relative is killed or sustains life-changing injuries. Women are also direct targets of gender-based violence in countries such as Mexico, for example, where police and the armed forces frequently subject women to sexual violence in detention and during interrogation. Moreover, certain groups of women, such as sex workers, are especially targeted for torture and ill-treatment in a number of countries, including the Dominican Republic.

By following these recommendations, states can create a region where police abuses are an outlier rather than a trend

Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International

Impunity for police abuses often persists because investigations into these crimes are not independent, do not meet minimum standards of diligence and do not involve victims, their families and civil society. Many investigations in Brazil have been undermined by the fact that forensic and ballistic services are controlled by the police, while the absence of independent investigations in Colombia has allowed evidence to be manipulated so that unlawful killings are justified as combat casualties – a phenomenon known as “false positives”.

A widespread failure to meet minimum standards for effective investigations has led to delayed investigations and in places such as Brazil, Jamaica and Nicaragua, while victims and their families in many countries face numerous obstacles in accessing information about the progress of investigations into unlawful use of force by police, let alone participating in the process.

For more information or to arrange an interview, contact Duncan Tucker: [email protected]