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ICRC relations with police and other law enforcement officials

29-10-2010 Overview

Law enforcement agencies are important contacts for the ICRC, both in armed conflict and in other situations of violence, as they maintain public order and security, prevent and detect crime and protect and assist the population.

Lima, National School of Police Officers 

Lima, National School of Police Officers.
© ICRC / HEGER, Boris / V-P-PE-E-00353

Police have considerable powers – to use force and firearms, to arrest and detain, to search and to seize. How they exercise those powers can have a major impact on people affected by violence or conflict.

The police are often the first point of contact for victims of violence and crime. And they can become victims themselves – as the most visible part of the State, they may become the focus of public anger during unrest. As representatives of the State, they may be attacked by gangs or armed groups.

The work of the police may affect that of the ICRC. They can facilitate or impede the ICRC's access to victims and they can have a positive or negative impact on our security in situations such as checkpoints, places of detention and violent public disorder, or simply when we are conducting first-aid training near a potentially dangerous police operation.

In its dialogue with the police, the ICRC aims to enhance understanding and acceptance of its work and its ways of working. It also reminds them of their obligations under domestic and international law. In general, it is international human rights law that applies to police operations. However, international humanitarian law may also apply to police forces during armed conflict, if they are formally incorporated into the armed forces or otherwise participate in hostilities. Even then, their work may still consist of law enforcement, in which case the ICRC will talk to them about how they exercise their powers and discharge their responsibilities towards the population.

The work of a police officer is very different from that of a soldier. His or her mission is to maintain public order and security and to serve and protect the population, rather than to neutralize an enemy. Most police officers work alone or in pairs and have to decide for themselves how to react to an incident. Their training and equipment must take this into account, e.g. their equipment must allow them to make a graduated response, preventing harm to bystanders. Certain weapons used by the armed forces are therefore inappropriate to law enforcement. Giving police officers protective equipment will reduce the need for them to use force.

In keeping with its mandate to protect and assist people affected by war and violence, the ICRC explains to police forces the rules governing force, firearms, arrest, detention, search and seizure. The ICRC also stresses that police forces should have a system for punishing violations of these rules.

ICRC delegates engage in dialogue with the police at checkpoints, give talks in police stations and barracks and speak directly to officials further up the chain of command. These are all opportunities to remind the police of their responsibilities towards people affected by the situation. The ICRC also promotes understanding of its neutral and impartial work, to ensure safe access to the people it is trying to help.

The ICRC can support authorities in incorporating international human rights or humanitarian law into their operational doctrine and training. The ICRC's delegates to law enforcement agencies are all former police officers, making them well-placed to provide expertise and to train instructors and those in charge of developing operational procedures. The ultimate aim is to create an environment conducive to compliance with the basic rules of human rights law as they apply to law enforcement.