Respect Standards on Using Force in Response to Ongoing Protests
June 18, 2013
Authorities have an obligation to re-establish order when violence erupts during public protests. But that doesn’t give security forces license to violate protesters’ or bystanders’ rights, or make them immune from punishment when they go too far.
José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director

(New York) – The São Paulo state government should honor pledges to thoroughly and impartially investigate the legality of force used by security forces during recent crowd-control operations in São Paulo, Human Rights Watch said today.

On June 13, 2013, scores of people were injured when police officers used teargas and rubber bullets to disperse demonstrators protesting an increase in bus and subway fares in São Paulo.

“Authorities have an obligation to re-establish order when violence erupts during public protests,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “But that doesn’t give security forces license to violate protesters’ or bystanders’ rights, or make them immune from punishment when they go too far.”

Several police were injured and weapons seized in São Paulo, including knives, razor blades, scissors, and chains, the military police said. More than 200 protesters have been arrested since the first demonstration was held on June 6, on charges including destruction to private property and conspiring to commit crimes, media reports said.

On June 14, federal and municipal authorities publicly acknowledged that images of the demonstrations in São Paulo and the testimony of journalists injured in demonstrations the previous day suggest that police used excessive force and “failed to follow police protocol.”

On June 17, the São Paulo governor, Geraldo Alckmin, prohibited the use of rubber bullets during ongoing demonstrations, and government officials met with the protest organizers to discuss the location of further demonstrations and the equipment to be used by security forces monitoring the events. No incidents of police violence were reported thereafter in the capital, but as protests spread to cities across Brazil on June 17, riot police in Porto Alegre and Belo Horizonte used tear gas against protesters, news media reported. In Rio, media reported that several protesters and police were injured in protests before the state legislative assembly.

International human rights treaties ratified by Brazil obligate the government to safeguard the rights of freedom of expression and association. Authorities should ensure that acts of violence during protests and demonstrations are met with a graded response, Human Rights Watch said. The UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officers state that law enforcement officials “shall, as far as possible, apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force and firearms.” Whenever the use of force is unavoidable, security forces should “[e]xercise restraint in such use and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offence and the legitimate objective to be achieved,” the principles say.

In addition, the standards state that law enforcement officials should not use firearms against people “except in self-defense or defense of others against the imminent threat of death or serious injury.” Because rubber bullets may in certain circumstances have lethal effects, they should be treated for practical purposes as firearms, Human Rights Watch said.

The use of teargas, which can cause serious health problems, as a method of crowd control should also be subject to clear regulation on when it can be used, and then only when necessary and in a proportionate and non-discriminatory manner. It should not be used in a confined area or against anyone in detention or already under the control of law enforcement. Anyone exposed to teargas should be given immediate access to a doctor and offered measures of relief.

Human Rights Watch closely follows policing practices in Brazil. In its 2009 report, Lethal Force, Human Rights Watch documented how legitimate efforts to curb violent crime in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro were undercut by police who engaged in unlawful violence and investigators who routinely failed to conduct proper inquiries into shootings by the police. Inadequate investigations of police violence were a major factor contributing to widespread impunity.

“We are witnessing the escalation of protests across Brazil, in part fueled by the heavy-handed response by its police force,” Vivanco said. “Unless Brazil issues clear instructions to the police to use force only as a last resort and hold officers who commit abuses accountable, it is all too likely that the events last week in São Paulo will be repeated.”

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