Reporting Killings as Human Rights Violations Handbook

Reporting Killings as Human Rights Violations Handbook

How to document and respond to potential violations of the right to life within the international system for the protection of human rights

By Kate Thompson and Camille Giffard

Handbook links: website home page
Table of Contents - Search - Part I: Essential Reading - Part II: Identifying a Potential Violation - Part III: How to Document Allegations of Unlawful Killings - Part IV: Responding to the Information Collected - Part V: Where can you Seek Further Help? - Appendices
I. Essential Reading: section links...
1. Introduction - 2. Using This Handbook - 3. What You Can Achieve By Taking Action - Summary of Part I



Reporting allegations of unlawful killings to the international mechanisms can be of benefit to the general situation in a country and to individuals such as the relatives and close friends of the victim or victims.

3.1. Draw attention to a situation/establish a pattern of violations

Governments, whose agents commit human rights abuses, prefer to keep such practices out of the public eye, in order to escape condemnation. Reporting allegations to the international mechanisms goes a long way towards preventing this, because it raises awareness of the real situation in a country. The international community is most likely to take action with regard to situations about which it receives a lot of information. The only way to increase the possibility of the rest of the world taking action against human rights violations in a country is to make sure that the situation is known about.

If the information available supports it, you should try to present evidence of a pattern of violations. Consistent and regular information is evidence of such patterns and will raise more concern with the international community, than reports of a few isolated incidents. This is because it shows that the problem is a serious one, and makes it more difficult for a state to argue that it is not involved or unaware of the practices.

3.1.1. Seek positive changes in a general situation

Drawing attention to a situation is not just about seeking condemnation or holding a state to account. Even more importantly, it is about seeking constructive and long-term improvements in a country, which will contribute to the ultimate elimination of unlawful deprivations of life. This will often require changes both in the legislative framework and in official attitudes to the value of life. Many of the international mechanisms make suggestions to states about ways in which they can improve the general situation, for example, through the introduction of regulations and safeguards on the use of force by law enforcement officials and by providing guidance on how to establish systems for the effective investigation of a suspicious death. Usually, the recommendations of the international bodies are just the beginning of a dialogue with the state in question, the end purpose of which is to ensure that these recommendations are implemented.

3.1.2. Challenge impunity

Bringing allegations of killings into the public eye in order to call states to account is one result of reporting them. On a different level, reporting can also help to cast light on the individuals who carry out such practices, to make sure that they cannot continue to engage in such behaviour with impunity. Ideally, this should be done by initiating prosecution within the domestic legal system. However, where prosecution is not, or could not, be effective, many of the international bodies are quick to condemn official tolerance of excessive or inappropriate violence and to require or recommend that a state take measures to prevent impunity. As long as perpetrators are able to 'get away with it' there is no incentive for them to stop.

If a state fails to prevent impunity for perpetrators, this also raises an issue of state responsibility under international law. States actually have an obligation under international law to make sure that suspected perpetrators are held responsible for their actions. If a state does not prosecute individuals which it suspects of having been involved in an unlawful killing, it may well be failing in its obligations under international law.

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3.2. Seek a remedy for an individual victim

There are several more immediate or direct remedies of reporting allegations which benefit the friends and relatives of the victim, the witnesses to the killing and, of course, the memory of the victim him/herself.

3.2.1. A finding of violation

Many of the described international treaty bodies are able to pronounce on the question of whether or not a violation of the right to life has taken place. This means that they can make an authoritative declaration that the state has breached its obligations under international law in relation to a particular individual. Even if it awards no further remedy on the individual case, the effect is that there has been a public finding of the culpability of the state in question, and that the state has been forced to account for its behaviour.

3.2.2. Holding perpetrators to account

Some of the mechanisms can request or order that an effective investigation be carried out into an allegation of an unlawful killing and that the perpetrator or perpetrators be prosecuted for their behaviour. This is important to reassure a victim's friends and family, that a perpetrator is not able to kill without consequences.

3.2.3. Reparation

A number of the international judicial bodies are empowered to order a state to make reparations in cases where they have made a finding of violation. It can be awarded in a number of forms. Traditionally, it has often involved the award of monetary compensation, but it is becoming more common for other types of reparation to be ordered as well. Less traditional forms of reparation, which are becoming more common within the Inter-American system in particular, might include, an order to open a school or hospital in a community which has been the subject of violations; a requirement that the state informs relatives of disappeared or murdered persons of the location of the bodies of the dead; or an order that the state makes a public apology for what has taken place.

It should be noted that cases should not be brought before an international court (as opposed to different, less formal, types of international human rights mechanisms) without professional and, if available, experienced legal advice. This should not, however, prevent you from taking urgent action to prevent serious harm (such as that dealt with in the following paragraph).

3.2.4. Preventing the deportation of an individual to a country where he or she would be at risk of unlawful death or ill-treatment

A number of the mechanisms are prepared to take urgent action to prevent the deportation of individuals to countries where they are believed to be at risk. The individual must be able to show that he or she is personally at risk and that the risk is a continuing one - if this can be established, the body may request that the state, from which asylum is being sought, does not deport the person, at least until the mechanism in question has had an opportunity to consider the case. Such requests are not necessarily binding on the state, but are often respected.

Individuals seeking to prevent their deportation may have legal avenues for action open to them within the domestic system. For this reason it is worth referring the person to someone who can provide expert legal advice.

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3.3. Encourage reform of a state agency: Improvements in the implementation of international standards

It is very likely that a human rights violation that has resulted in a death, has come about because of a failure to adopt or to implement internationally agreed principles and standards. There are numerous legal instruments at the international level which relate to the prevention and investigation of unlawful killings. They also provide guidance on the setting of professional standards, which enable agencies such as the police to carry out legitimate functions effectively, lawfully and humanely. States may fail to adopt such standards through lack of awareness of international norms or active resistance to external influences in their internal regulations. The failure to implement could be at many levels including:

Bringing human rights abuses to the attention of the international community can lead states to voluntarily implement improved standards, or being required to implement improved standards. This raises the professional standards of state agencies which, in turn, benefits the whole community. Examples of such measures are the introduction of regulations on the use of firearms by the police, or the passing of legislation establishing machinery for the investigation of deaths.

Improvements in the professional standards and support given to state agencies will have a knock-on effect on their willingness to open their institutions to external inspection and to take action when something goes wrong, making them more accountable and transparent, and consequently, providing reassurance to the general public.

Findings of failures in national human rights systems may also attract technical co-operation and funding from international agencies and other donors, with the aim to improve the structures of state agencies through training and capacity building.

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Handbook links: website home page
Table of Contents - Search - Part I: Essential Reading - Part II: Identifying a Potential Violation - Part III: How to Document Allegations of Unlawful Killings - Part IV: Responding to the Information Collected - Part V: Where can you Seek Further Help? - Appendices
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