Letter to Dr. Alejandro Toledo
August 7, 2002

Dr. Alejandro Toledo
President of the Republic of Peru
Presidencia de la República
Palacio de Gobierno
Plaza de Armas
Lima 1, Perú

By fax

Dear Mr. President,

I write to express Human Rights Watch's deep concern about the future of aerial anti-narcotics operations in Peru. It is our understanding that the United States government is currently seeking to restore a joint program aimed at intercepting aircraft suspected of transporting illegal drugs. We would strongly urge you to reject any such program if it entails the unlawful use of lethal force against civilians.

As you well know, international law enforcement standards strictly limit the use of lethal force against fleeing suspects. Principal 9 of the Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials (adopted in 1990 by the Eighth U.N. Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders) permits the intentional use of lethal force by law enforcement officials only "when strictly unavoidable to protect life." Firearms may be used against criminal suspects only "in self-defense or defense of others against the imminent threat of death or serious injury" or a "grave threat to life" and only when "less extreme means are insufficient."

We are deeply troubled, therefore, by the possibility that a renewed aerial anti- narcotic program in Peru could violate these norms by authorizing the downing of aircraft that refuse to observe identification procedures or disregard orders to land. Unless these aircraft actually present a threat of death or serious bodily injury to law enforcement officers or third parties, they cannot be considered legitimate targets of lethal force.

We have raised these concerns repeatedly with the U.S. government. In a letter to President George W. Bush in July 2001, for example, we explained how the use of lethal force in aerial anti-narcotics operations in Peru had violated international law. Unfortunately, however, it appears that the U.S. government may now be seeking to evade responsibility for these violations rather than end ing them. A renewed program in which Peruvian pilots alone do all the work could leave the Peruvian government to take all the blame for the violations that inevitably occur.

It is important to stress that any such program would be entirely unacceptable even if it incorporated measures aimed at avoiding "mistakes" such as the downing of a plane transporting an American missionary family last year. The airspace where anti- narcotic interceptions occur is frequently crisscrossed by aircraft transporting business people, missionaries, tourists, and other law-abiding civilians, making implementation of any such measures hazardous at best. But even if "mistakes" could be avoided in the future, the downing of aircraft that pose no imminent threat to human life will still be a violation of international law, no matter what their cargo may contain.

Although policymakers commonly refer to counter-narcotics efforts in terms of a "war on drugs," it is important to keep in mind that this label is entirely rhetorical in nature. The effort to curb drug trafficking is not war, it is law enforcement, and should be guided by law enforcement standards. Suspects may not be fired on as if they were combatants in an armed conflict, however well-founded suspicions ma y be that they are engaged in illicit activity.

Peru has itself already embraced this fundamental principle in its efforts to curb street crime and outbreaks of violence during demonstrations. I urge you not to compromise it now in the name of drug enforcement. Just as your government would never permit the summary execution of people selling drugs in the street, it would be unconscionable for it to allow suspected traffickers to be summarily shot down in the air.

I appreciate your attention to this important matter. And I would be most grateful to have an opportunity to discuss it with you further next week during my visit to Lima.

Yours Sincerely,

José Miguel Vivanco
Executive Director

cc: Amb. Allan Wagner, Foreign Minister
cc: Mr. Nestor Popolizo, Chargé d'affairs, Peruvian Embassy Washington, D.C.
cc: Mr. Richard Brown, Chargé d'affairs, US Embassy Lima, Perú

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