Police violence proves why Europe needs its Human Rights convention

An investigation by French authorities has found that widespread human rights abuses have been committed in the year since the Calais migrant camp was demolished. The abuses were committed by police ordered to prevent a new camp from being established.

Credit PHILIPPE HUGUEN AFP unclear useage rights

Compagnies républicaines de sécurité, CRS police unit in Calais. Photo: Phillipe Huguen / AFP

The investigation by France’s Ministry of Interior found that police sprayed children with strong chemicals that caused intense pain and irritation to the eyes and skin. This violence was not in self-defence, but took place as part of an ongoing campaign to make Calais a hostile environment for migrants. Children were often sprayed whilst they were asleep in woods around Calais, and their sleeping bags were also sprayed so that they could not be used again. Locally active civil society organisations (L’Auberge des Migrants and Help Refugees) complained about the attacks, but the catalyst for the inquiry was a Human Rights Watch report published in July 2017 that drew the attention of French President Emmanuel Macron.

Further evidence of police violence was collected during an inquiry by the Co-Chairs of the UK’s All Party Parliamentary Group on Trafficking and Modern Slavery. Their separate July 2017 report found that in Calais, “the actions of the French authorities to create a hostile ‘no tolerance’ policy towards migrants in Calais and surrounding areas has created such a toxic environment that children are routinely subject to police violence, sprayed with tear gas, pepper spray and hit with batons.” The report includes testimony from children who claimed to have been beaten on the legs with batons as a punishment for sleeping rough in the woods near Calais.

Protection offered by European Convention on Human Rights

But here’s the problem for those police officers and their political masters: In the aftermath of the Holocaust and World War II, France signed the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR). Article 3 of the Convention prohibits inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Article 3 therefore offers protection against abuses such as; torture, severe cases of police violence and poor prison conditions. Unlike some articles of the ECHR, there are no exceptions or limitations on this human right.

Combined see credits on individ photos

Nuremberg trials prosecutor David Maxwell Fyfe (left) and former French government minister and wartime resistance prisoner Pierre-Henri Teitgen (right) had key roles in drafting the European Convention on Human Rights. Credits: Yad Vashem, Eric Schwab/Getty.

Police violence in Europe has become less common over the last seventy years, as the ECHR has contributed to increasing human rights standards, law and culture. The ECHR established the European Court of Human Rights which allows individuals to take legal action against governments for violations of rights. A court judgement against a government can result in a requirement to change relevant law or practice, and a financial penalty. For example, in a prominent case about police violence (Nachova and Others versus Bulgaria, 2005), the European Court of Human Rights Grand Chamber (2005) ruled that national laws regulating policing must include a system of adequate and effective safeguards against arbitrary or abusive force, and even against avoidable accident.

Such judgements form the basis of case law that can be referred to by other courts around Europe. The type of protection offered by the Convention is not a form of absolute guarantee, but continuous system of building a human rights culture in Europe, brick by brick.

In seeking to improve standards and avoid being taken to the Court, European countries have been working together through the Council of Europe, including developing a European Code of Police Ethics. This Code is a real opportunity to improve standards.

Spainish Police credit copsadmireratyahoodotes

Spanish Police. Credit: Copsadmirer

However, whilst the trend has been positive, there have been a growing number of examples of human rights abuses over the last five years. The use of excessive force against peaceful protesters in 2013 is sometimes cited as a factor in the conflict in Ukraine. And just last month, many in Europe were surprised at the level of violence used to clear polling stations in the Catalan independence referendum.




European Code of Police Ethics

The European Code of Police Ethics was agreed by the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe in 2001, a body representing all member governments. It is not itself an international treaty and is not enforceable, but it is something that all governments have signed up to and can be held to account, politically, for adherence to it.

Articles of the European Code of Police Ethics include:

  • The police shall not inflict, instigate or tolerate any act of torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment under any circumstances.
  • The police may use force only when strictly necessary and only to the extent required to obtain a legitimate objective.
  • Police personnel shall carry out orders properly issued by their superiors, but they shall have a duty to refrain from carrying out orders which are clearly illegal and to report such orders, without fear of sanction.
  • The police, in carrying out their activities, shall always bear in mind everyone’s fundamental rights, such as freedom of thought, conscience, religion, expression, peaceful assembly, movement and the peaceful enjoyment of possessions.
  • Police personnel shall act with integrity and respect towards the public and with particular consideration for the situation of individuals belonging to especially vulnerable groups.

As these articles show, the Code is flexible enough to cover the full range of policing functions and tactics, but specific enough to be applied to particular situations and new technologies.

What might change for Calais?

Postcard from Calais

Erik Dries, Quakers in the Netherlands

The Ministry of Interior investigation of Calais policing found that officers have not been complying with an existing requirement that police uniforms clearly display individual numbers. Something which has be long recognised by volunteers working in the Calais camp. This practice allows police officers to be identified more easily when there are concerns about their conduct, contributing to the accountability described in the European Code of Police Ethics.

The investigation also made recommendations for the stricter use of CS spray and increasing the use of body-worn cameras. The spraying of children with chemical agent chlorobenzylidene-malononitrile, or CS, is given significant space in the Ministry of Interior report, which suggested clearer and more specific guidelines be produced for police officers. Individual body-worn cameras are becoming an increasingly common tool for gathering evidence for criminal investigations and providing a new impartial form of evidence when police conduct is called into question. Body-worn cameras can usually be turned on and off by the police officer wearing them, but police leaders and public scrutiny bodies should now develop a new expectation amongst police officers in Calais that cameras must be recording during interaction with migrants or other vulnerable persons.

Beyond Calais: A more profound demilitarization of some European policing is needed

The Council of Europe and the European Convention on Human Rights continue to spark many positive developments in policing. However, the Calais abuses suggest that national governments should go further and rethink the structure and composition of their police forces.

Police abuses identified by the Calais inquiry have been attributed to the French riot police (Compagnies républicaines de sécurité, CRS). The CRS are a full time public order force, with its origins in a paramilitary tradition of policing that can be found in several European countries. A consequence of such a full time force is that officers have far less experience of local community policing, engaging with the public and violence de-escalation. CRS-type police units tend to also be very male dominated environments, where forms of competitive or aggressive masculinity can develop.

Human rights compliant policing is central to effective policing which relies upon cooperation between police and the public. It also builds public trust in the state and contributes to social cohesion. It is therefore time to build a broad coalition to support a positive agenda for cultural change within European policing.


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Note: The Ministry of Interior investigation involved three investigation departments – the inspectorates for the National Police, the Gendarmerie National, and the French State (Inspection Générale de la Police Nationale, Inspection Générale de la Gendarmerie Nationale, and the Inspection Générale de l’Administration).

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