Op-Ed: The Use of Lethal Force in Brazil Has Striking Similarities to the U.S.

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 09:  Police officers are seen along the Olympic Boulevard live site area on August 9, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Olympic team members, officials and other visitors have reported a rash of robberies in recent days in spite of a heavy police presence near Olympic venue sites.  (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

Op-Ed: The Use of Lethal Force in Brazil Has Striking Similarities to the U.S.

Amnesty International documents policing the police at home and abroad

Published August 22, 2016

Many people have never heard of Eduardo de Jesus Ferreira, a 10-year old child who was killed outside of his home by military police after they mistook a phone for a gun. Eduardo’s mother, who joined a group of women demanding an end to police violence, had to leave the city following death threats.

Few people know about Cristian Andrade, a 13-year old killed during a police operation while playing soccer — the most popular sport in Brazil and a pastime for many children.

And most are unfamiliar with Vitor Santiago’s case — a 30-year old who was shot by soldiers on the drive home from watching a football game with his friends. With no warning, the police shot at their car and Vitor was hit by two bullets that pierced his lung and struck his spine. Today, he is paralyzed from the waist down.

With the world spotlight on Brazil during the Olympics, these are the stories you won’t hear. But they’re eerily familiar to people in the United States, who have witnessed similar violence in communities of color across the country. Much as in the United States, this violence in Brazil — largely perpetuated by police — impacts Black men and other marginalized people.

From Eric Garner to Michael Brown, Tamir Rice to Natasha McKenna, Freddie Gray to Alton Sterling, the U.S. is at last hearing about — and seeing — victims of lethal force by police. It’s part of a much larger, global problem that Amnesty International has documented in the U.S., Brazil and other countries.

Brazilian military police in Rio are violating the human rights of marginalized people without accountability. According to international standards, lethal force should be used only as a last resort in the face of imminent death or serious injury. But military police and soldiers in Rio de Janeiro regularly use unnecessary or excessive force during security operations in the city, contributing to its soaring homicide rate, which is one of the highest in the world.

Police have a right to defend themselves and a duty to to protect the public, but in doing so, they must act in accordance with international human rights standards. Lethal force laws in both Brazil and the United States are dangerously broad and do not limit the use of lethal force to only those instances when an individual presents a threat of serious injury or death (to the public or to the officer). This means that lethal force is used in situations that do not call for such levels of force, and all too often no one is held accountable when individuals are unlawfully killed by law enforcement officers.

In fact, in the United States, not one of the 50 states or the District of Columbia has laws that meet international standards on the use of lethal force. And not only do U.S. laws fall short of international standards, they also fail to comply with the U.S. Constitution. Nine states and the District of Columbia have no lethal force laws at all.

And in both countries, it is overwhelmingly Black communities who pay the price.

In Rio de Janeiro, 79 percent of those killed by police between 2010 and 2013 were Black men. Likewise, according to the limited government data available in the United States, Black people are disproportionately affected by the use of lethal force. The Black population of the United States is 13 percent but makes up 27 percent of those killed by law enforcement, with estimates of people killed annually by law enforcement at approximately 1,000 people.

As long as there is no accountability, this cycle of killings by the police in both the U.S. and Brazil will continue. According to official data from the Public Security Institute of Rio de Janeiro, there has been a shocking 103% increase in police killings in Rio between April 2015 and June 2016. In fact, since Rio de Janeiro was chosen as the host of this Summer Olympic Games, more than 2,600 people have been killed by the police in the city. In 2015, one in five people killed in Rio died as a result of police interventions.

Deadly force by law enforcement in Brazil and the United States raises serious human rights concerns, particularly in regard to the right to life. Under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the American Convention of Human Rights, both countries are obligated to respect the right to life of all people under their jurisdiction.

Let’s remember the stories of Jesus, Cristian and Vitor as we celebrate the victories of the Olympics. And join Amnesty in asking Brazilian and U.S. authorities to review existing laws, policies and practices regarding the use of lethal force to ensure that it is only used as a last resort in the face of grave danger. Together, we must demand that the governments ensure that everyone can enjoy the full range of their human rights, including those to life, security of the person, freedom from discrimination and equal protection under the law. 

Written by Margaret Huang

(Photo: Chris McGrath/Getty Images)


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