IACHR Report on Citizen Security & Human Rights

Citizen security remains a top concern for most Latin American governments as crime and violence spiral out of control and cripple political and economic institutions in the region. Still, government response needs to be aligned with the promotion of human rights, said a panel of experts at an October 19 discussion co-sponsored by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) at the Inter-American Dialogue. Presenting the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ (IACHR) new Report on Citizen Security and Human Rights, the panel—including several members of the Commission—advocated preventative and collaborative security policies that balance human rights with citizen security.

Traditionally, Latin American governments have implemented mano dura (hard-lined) policies to combat citizen-security problems. Measures like preventative detention, a lower age of criminal impunity, higher imprisonment rates, and participation of the armed forces and private security forces in domestic security issues amount to reactionary policies that do not necessarily solve the problem of elevated crime and homicide rates. Santiago Canton, executive secretary of the IACHR, called these policies “quick and simple answers” that are rarely effective.

Mano dura measures put security ahead of human rights and invoke tactics reminiscent of the region’s authoritarian past. Because crime is most prevalent among adolescents between the ages of 15 and 25, this cohort is unevenly targeted by law enforcement agents. But many youth fall victim to violations spelled out in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which includes provisions to protect juvenile offenders from excessive punishment.

In light of the shortcomings of mano dura policies, the report recommends several modifications to existing security strategies. Preventative policies should guide governments in the fight against citizen insecurity. Policy solutions should encompass additional government agencies besides the police and judiciary, and actively involve civil society actors and provincial governments. Security policies should be sustainable and oriented towards long-term, permanent solutions. Adriana Beltrán, senior associate for citizen security at WOLA, affirmed that adopting security policies that protect human rights “is possible.”

A unique feature of the report is that it is a product of the unprecedented collaboration between the Inter-American System and the United Nations, with civil society groups also taking an active role in its preparation. According to Ernesto Semán of the Argentine human rights NGO Center for Legal and Social Studies, civil society groups that fought against state power during military dictatorships have undertaken the counterintuitive task of harnessing state power to protect the human rights of those threatened by insecurity.

Panelists affirmed, however, that it is the responsibility of governments to implement viable policy solutions to the dilemma of balancing human rights and security. “There is no other solution in a democracy,” concluded Pinheiro.

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