The use of force in law enforcement operations

14 June 2019

States often face situations in which their officials must use force to maintain or restore public security, law and order in armed conflicts or other situations of violence. Force in law enforcement operations can be used by persons who exercise State powers, including police and military forces. Such use of force is mainly governed by international human rights law and domestic law and must be strictly regulated by States. Notably, States must ensure that national legislation is brought into conformity with their international obligations and sanction their officials if they have used force in an excessive or otherwise arbitrary way.

What is the use of force? 

When conducting operations to maintain or restore public security, law and order – namely law enforcement operations – State officials can resort to a variety of measures, including, under stringent conditions, the use of force. The term “use of force” is often defined under national law. However, it is generally understood as any physical constraint imposed on a person, ranging from physical restraint by hand or with a restraining device to use of firearms or other weapons. Force may be used only if other means remain ineffective or without any promise of achieving the intended result. This is an important consideration when resorting to the use of lethal or potentially lethal force to respect the right to life. 

Which legal regimes govern the use of force in law enforcement operations? 

The use of force in law enforcement operations is mainly governed by international human rights law, which is applicable in peacetime as well as during armed conflicts, and by domestic law, as well as by a few IHL provisions in times of armed conflicts. 

International human rights law

The most relevant right about the use of force in law enforcement operations is the right to life. This right cannot be derogated from.

In most human rights treaties, what is prohibited is a deprivation of life that is “arbitrary”, meaning not in compliance with international rules and standards pertaining to the right to life, or with domestic law. This implies that there are circumstances under which the use of lethal or potentially lethal force by State officials is authorized. Depending on the circumstances, other rights and prohibitions might be affected because of the use of force against persons, for instance, the right to freedom of expression and the right to peaceful assembly.

The UN Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials (CCLEO) of 1979 and the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials (BPUFF) of 1990 provide further guidance on the use of force in law enforcement operations.