Following the banning of a number of demonstrations protesting police violence after the unlawful killing of 17-year-old Nahel M by a police officer, Amnesty International is calling for the French government to prioritise the wholesale reform of rules governing the use of firearms and lethal force by law enforcement officers, to end their dangerous denial of the effects of systemic racism in law enforcement and respect the right to peaceful assembly.
The organization made the call in a statement published today. Amnesty International has long called for the creation of an independent body with responsibility for investigating complaints against law enforcement officers.
“The fatal shooting of Nahel by police – the latest in a long series of unlawful killings at traffic stops by police – highlights the urgent need for wholesale reform of France’s dangerously imprecise and permissive rules around police use of firearms,” said Nils Muižnieks, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for Europe.
“The current rules, which fall short of international law and standards, coupled with the long-standing failure to end racial profiling and systemic racism and ensure accountability for officers who use unnecessary or excessive force, has created a climate of impunity and fear.”
The killing of drivers and passengers by French police is a long-standing issue. Changes to the Internal Security Code introduced “absolute necessity and strict proportionality” into the existing rules on the use of firearms in a series of circumstances. This means law enforcement officers should not use firearms if they can achieve a legitimate objective via less harmful means and that when using firearms, this should cause not more harm than the use is supposed to prevent. However, the rules fail to restrict the use of firearms to instances where there is an imminent threat to life or of serious injury, and thus fall short of international human rights law and standards.
Since 2017, the use of lethal force by police officers following a “refus d’obtempérer”, a refusal to obey police instructions to stop – typically for an ID check and in light of an apparent violation of the highway code -has increased fivefold. According to the Minister of Interior’s data, the use of firearms towards people in moving vehicles has increased significantly since 2017. However, the mere fact that a person resists arrest or tries to escape, without posing any danger to anybody’s life, is not a sufficient reason to use firearms.
“Too many people – particularly Black and Arab men – have been shot and killed in similar circumstances by French police. People are rightly angry and the question ‘How many Nahels have not been filmed?’ cannot but hang in the air,” said Nils Muižnieks.
“Authorities must not only deliver justice for Nahel and overhaul police firearm policy but must also take meaningful action to address systemic racism in French policing.”
The United Nations Basic Principles on the use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials includes Principle 9, which states: “Law enforcement officials shall not use firearms against persons except in self-defence or defence of others against the imminent threat of death or serious injury […] intentional lethal use of firearms may only be made when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life.”
On 7 July 2023, in a statement the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) stated that they are “deeply concerned by the continuing practice of racial profiling combined with the excessive use of force by law enforcement officials, in particular the police, against members of minority groups, particularly people of African and Arab descent, which frequently results in disproportionately recurrent killings with near impunity”.
In response the French authorities reiterated its claim that “Any accusation of racism or systemic discrimination by law enforcement officers in France is unfounded.”
Amnesty International France are part of a coalition of human rights groups that brought a class action lawsuit in 2021 against the French state’s inaction over ethnic profiling and systemic racial discrimination. The case is ongoing.