© 2024 International Network of Civil Liberties Organizations & Physicians for Human Rights

Opinion: Protesting should not mean putting your life on the line

You should not have to risk your life to protest. In Peru, this risk is a reality. 

58 people have died already in the nationwide demonstrations that began in early December 2022 after vice-president Dina Boluarte took office following the impeachment and arrest of Pedro Castillo. Many of these deaths are from live ammunition fired at peaceful and unarmed demonstrators, other times at passerbys who were not even participating in protests. Others however are the result of crowd control weapons (CCWs) which can hurt, maim and kill, and of which the government has used prolific amounts.

The deadly victims of crowd control weapons

The right to peaceful assembly and association is a crucial human right that Peru has committed itself to protect, defend and facilitate. But the recent violence has primarily been at the hands of Peruvian law enforcement. One of the latest deaths was of Victor Santisteban Yacsavilca, a passerby who was not even demonstrating and who died as a result of a tear gas canister hitting him in the head from a short distance. Despite contradictory statements from the Ministry of Health and media channels, an autopsy confirmed that he had been hit by a canister and not a stone. In Lima, Pedro Cosi Condori and Udoc Dassio Antonio suffered skull fractures from tear gas canisters hitting their heads. They are among the 8 victims who were treated for this exact same type of injury in Peru’s capital that day. Demonstrators in the last few weeks have also suffered severe injuries from other CCWs: Rosalino Flores Valverde is still hospitalized for injuries from  36 buckshots that were lodged in his chest and abdomen after he was shot at his back at short range in the January protests in Cusco. 

Awareness of the dangers of rubber bullets and tear gas canisters is rising, but there is still a long way to go. Research conducted by Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) and the International Network of Civil Liberties Organizations (INCLO) demonstrates that tear gas – the crowd control weapon most commonly used around the world and perceived to be among the least harmless –  can cause severe pain, and suffocation, and long-term impacts such as chemical burns and vision loss. When the canisters end up being used as projectiles – as was the case with Yacsavilca – they become extraordinarily hazardous. Tear gas canisters are dense, metallic, large, often heated and can hit someone mid-explosion. They have been documented to cause permanent disabilities and deaths in Iraq, Syria, Chile, Ecuador, among other countries.

Tighter international controls and oversight

The mounting injuries among protestors and the death of Santisteban Yacsavilca in Peru from CCWs reaffirm this research. CCWs with metal components or multiple projectiles should never be used in the context of protests and tear gas canisters should not be used as kinetic projectiles, as INCLO and PHR have recommended. So does the United Nations Guidance on the Use of Less-Lethal Weapons in Law Enforcement, which were established in 2020 and include guidelines for the proper deployment of these devices by state authorities. There is a growing body of standards indicating that some CCWs have no role in law enforcement and others should be strictly regulated when used.

However, most governments, including Peru, are far from having strong regulations and accountability mechanisms despite the heavy risks these weapons entail. In addition, there is little transparency around the manufacture, testing, purchasing, and use of CCWs around the world. The fact that these weapons may be produced in one country, bought by one country, then used in another, makes ensuring accountability for serious violations a huge challenge.There are no standards to limit the purchase of weapons by governments who are actively violating human rights like in the case of Peru right now. 

To be clear, the majority of victims in Peru have been victims of live ammunition used by law enforcement against demonstrators, something that is expressly prohibited by the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and nearly every other relevant human rights law. However, there are worrying developments that could make the death of Santisteban Yacsavilca go from a concerning incident to part of a wider pattern. 

Besides urgently ordering rubber bullets, tear gas grenades and cartridges from multiple national manufacturers, the Peruvian government has requested that Ecuador return over 12,000 tear gas canisters that Peruvian authorities gave to Ecuador to respond to its own unrest in 2022. On January 12, 2023 Peru also received almost 30,000 additional tear gas munitions from the Brazilian manufacturer Cóndor. Adding more CCWs to an already volatile situation suggests that the Peruvian government and law enforcement are ignoring their fundamental responsibility to find ways to deescalate and facilitate dialogue. That should be their primary focus; not acquiring more weapons to use against civilians.

An international torture-free trade treaty to regulate the industry

A global treaty that sets enforceable standards on the trade of these weapons, the Torture Free Trade Treaty is currently being proposed at the UN, which would be an important step towards ensuring that certain weapons that have been linked to human rights violations go through human rights controls before being purchased or traded. It would create clearer mechanisms to keep countries in check regarding the purchase of weapons –in cases such as that of Peru right now– and the manufacturing and sale of armament, like in the case of Peru’s recent CCWs providers, Brazil and Ecuador.

There are grave human rights violations happening in Peru at the moment and there is no sign of them slowing down. More CCWs will only lead to more serious injuries and death when put in the hands of law enforcement that has demonstrated it is not up to the task to protect the lives and human rights of all. 

Demonstrators must be allowed to speak their views freely without fear of death and injuries. 

Read the article in Spanish

By Laura Kauer Garcia (INCLO), Rohini Haar (PHR) and Camila Maia (CELS)

Laura Kauer Garcia is the project manager of the Protest Rights and Policing program at the International Network of Civil Liberties Organizations (INCLO). She has worked as a consultant and researcher on the rights to protest and free expression, and attacks on human rights defenders.

Rohini Haar is an emergency physician with expertise in health and human rights and medical advisor to Physicians for Human Rights (PHR). She is also adjunct professor at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health

Camila Barretto Maia heads the International Team at Argentina’s human rights organization Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales (CELS) which currently coordinates an emergency legal assistance program for protesters in Latin America.