Amnesty International and the Omega Research Foundation on Thursday called on governments to support a UN-led process to regulate the trade in law enforcement equipment, highlighting how ubiquitous weapons like police batons are routinely misused in ways that can constitute torture and other ill-treatment.
In a new investigation titled “Blunt Force,” the organizations catalogued 188 incidents in which law enforcement officers have misused striking weapons such as batons, which are currently traded with little to no regulation. The investigation draws on open-source photo and video evidence from 35 countries, including Turkey.
Batons have been used to inflict beatings as a means of punishment, beat people who are already restrained, deliver unjustified dangerous head and neck strikes and choke people in neck holds, the investigation found. Single baton blows have been delivered with such force that the victims have collapsed to the ground. Incidents documented also include batons being used to commit sexual violence.
As a UN process to create an international regulatory framework moves forward, Amnesty and Omega are calling for tighter controls on the trade in less lethal law enforcement weapons as well as an outright ban on certain types of inherently abusive equipment used for torture or for carrying out the death penalty.
“Batons can cause serious injury and even death when used improperly – yet the trade in law enforcement equipment like this continues to benefit from a shocking absence of regulation. Governments should be obliged to conduct rigorous risk assessments before allowing this equipment to be exported,” said Verity Coyle, advisor on Military, Security and Policing at Amnesty International.
“States should also ensure that law enforcement agencies are trained and instructed in human rights compliant policing, including in the context of public assemblies, where many of the violations we documented took place. There are international standards governing how police can use force, but our investigation shows these being flouted all over the world – with profoundly dangerous consequences.”
Striking devices are the most common type of less lethal weapon, carried by police and security forces worldwide. These include batons, lathis (long sticks) and sjamboks (rigid whips). The widespread deployment of this equipment means it is also among the most frequently abused, especially in the context of crackdowns on protests.
“Some less lethal weapons and equipment can have a legitimate use in law enforcement if employed correctly and in line with international standards for law enforcement,” the organizations said. “But the use of force must only be resorted to with the utmost respect for the law and with due consideration for the serious impact it can have on a range of human rights …”
Under the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials (BPUFF), police may only use force for a legitimate law enforcement purpose and may not use more force than needed to achieve this objective. Any potential harm caused by police using force must not outweigh the harm they want to prevent. Furthermore, as with other means of force, batons must never be used for the purpose of punishment. These rules also apply in the context of policing public assemblies.