A member of Argentine National Gendarmerie aims his gun to demonstrators during a protest against government-proposed pension reforms as protesters march to Argentine National Congress in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on December 14, 2017.

© 2017 Mariano Sanchez/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
(Washington, D.C.) – A new government resolution in Argentina to regulate the use of firearms by security agents runs counter to basic human rights standards and could encourage shootings in unjustifiable circumstances, Human Rights Watch said today.

On December 3, 2018, the Argentine Security Ministry approved a resolution regarding the use of firearms by members of federal security forces. The resolution cites the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, which provide authoritative guidance concerning use of force by security officers. However, the Argentine resolution contains loopholes and ambiguities that could allow security officers to employ firearms in an unacceptably broad set of circumstances.

“The resolution cites to the UN principles on the use of force, but in fact it fails to adhere to them,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “The Argentine government should promptly review this resolution to ensure that it puts more appropriate limits on the use of firearms and clearly requires any deliberate lethal use of firearms to be strictly unavoidable to protect life.”

The government claimed that, under previous norms, federal agents could not use firearms to “detain delinquents or stop them from fleeing, even if they had killed or tried to kill someone,” nor to stop the commission of grave crimes because agents “had to wait until the aggressor shot first.”

The resolution establishes that federal security forces have an obligation to respect human dignity and human rights, and that they will only be able to use firearms when such use is strictly necessary and proportionate to “fulfil their duties.” It adds that security forces “will use” firearms in self-defense, or to protect someone else from an imminent risk to life or serious injury, to prevent a particularly serious crime involving grave threat to life, to arrest a person presenting such a danger and resisting authority, or to prevent their escape.

However, the new provisions are inconsistent with human rights standards that strictly limit the use of firearms.

The resolution fails to distinguish between the use of firearms and the deliberately lethal use of firearms – that is, the distinction between shooting and shooting with intent to kill. This is another key distinction because, even in those limited cases where the use of firearms is justifiable, officers should generally not shoot to kill. Under the UN Basic Principles, the intentional lethal use of firearms is permissible only “when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life.”

Moreover, the provisions allow federal security officials to use firearms when “non-violent means are ineffective,” without specifying that there are other means to use force that should be employed before using firearms.

Under the UN Basic Principles, security officers should only employ firearms when “less extreme means,” including violent ones, are insufficient. This is a key provision because it recognizes that firearms are more likely to cause death or injury than other uses of force. For that reason, security forces should use firearms not just where non-violent means are ineffective, but where other, less lethal modes of force are also impracticable. The resolution fails to maintain that principle, and for that reason seems to countenance shootings in a wide variety of unjustifiable scenarios.

The UN principles also lay out standards aimed at minimizing the use of force across the board, which are not explicitly included in Argentina’s new regulations. Specifically, law enforcement officials should “exercise restraint,” “minimize damage and injury, and respect and preserve human life.”

Moreover, the resolution includes vaguely worded examples of what would be considered an “imminent danger,” granting federal security forces broad discretion to use firearms. These include when a person is part of a group of two or more people and someone else holds a firearm or has injured a third party; when someone is running away after causing – or trying to cause – death or injuries to someone else; or when the “unforeseen nature of the attack” makes it impossible  for security officers to “carry out their duties.”