Extrajudicial killings are a global problem

A member of the St. Louis County Police Department points his weapon in the direction of a group of protesters in Ferguson, Mo. on Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014. AP

On Monday, Kenyans protested in the capital city of Nairobi over the killing of human rights lawyer Willie Kimani, his client Josephat Mwendwa, and their taxi driver. On Tuesday, Alton Sterling was killed in Baton Rouge, La., while standing in a parking lot selling CDs out of the back of his car. In a suburb of St. Paul, Minn. on Wednesday, Philando Castile was shot dead by a police officer during a police stop. Thursday saw the release of a new report that police in Rio de Janerio killed at least 322 people between January and May of this year unlawfully.

From Kenya to the United States to Brazil, police are killing citizens without a fair trial. These extrajudicial killings are illegal and a harm to public safety.

“Violent crime is a very real problem in Rio, but executing suspected criminals is not the answer,” said Maria Laura Canineu, Brazil director for Human Rights Watch, in a statement related to killings in that country. “These unlawful killings turn communities against the police and undermine security for all.”

Canineu’s sentiments could be easily applied to the deaths of Kimani and Sterling. The term ‘extrajudicial killing’ is often applied to countries with young democracies or ruled by dictators. For the U.S., it is applied by critics of drone strikes to the killings carried out by the current Obama administration. But the latest killings, which only add to the list 566 people killed by police in the U.S. this year (a disporportionally high number are black men) go to show the phrase is just as apt here in the U.S. as it is anywhere else.

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The very idea was raised by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor in her strongly worded dissent to a ruling by the court that allowed police offers to use evidence found after making illegal stops. She quickly points out that “people of color are disproportionate victims of this type of scrutiny.” But her broader points about justice are relevant to events that transpired just a few weeks after the decision.

“We must not pretend that the countless people who are routinely targeted by police are ‘isolated,’” she wrote. “They are the canaries in the coal mine whose deaths, civil and literal, warn us that no one can breathe in this atmosphere. They are the ones who recognize that unlawful police stops corrode all our civil liberties and threaten all our lives. Until their voices matter, too, our justice system will continue to be anything but.”

When the warnings from the canaries are ignored, the problem gets worse. In Rio, police have killed more than 8,000 people in the past decade. Some were for legitimate reasons, but some were not. Of the 30 officers interviewed by Human Rights Watch, two admitted to having direct involvement in the execution of suspected gang members and drug dealers.

It is a similar story in Kenya. Police and military forces are accused of carrying out executions, particularly against Somalis living in the country. Kimani and Mwendwa went missing after leaving a court hearing on June 23. Witnesses say they were held in a police cell shortly after the hearing. Days later the bodies of the two men and their driver were found in a river, and three police officers were held in connection to the murders.

“That a lawyer working for an international organization and his client could be abducted and disappeared in broad-day light only to be found dead is a matter that cannot be taken lightly,” said Kamau Ngugi, national coordinator at Kenya’s National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders, in a letter signed by 33 human rights organizations.

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In each of the three countries, the factors that enable extrajudicial killings are different and complex. But there are two similarities: power and impunity. It is often the case that the least powerful are the victims of extrajudicial killings. They are the poor in Brazil, minorities in the U.S. and foreigners in Kenya. Further, impunity is a theme that cuts across all three. Perpetrators are captured only to get off scot-free.

There are instances where force is a necessary part of police work. In one case this year, a man was shot dead after he attempted to drown an officer in a river. Extrajudicial killings are the exception, but are a problem that must be dealt with in order to preserve the very laws that form the foundation of a society. Police use of excessive force anywhere must be punished in the way that the people murdered are not afforded – through the court of law.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.