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The use of force amid the state of emergency

In Colombia, a state of exception was declared between March 15 and April 15 and according to the evolution, the government will assess the possibility of an extension 1.

One of the measures declared by the government has been obligatory confinement, supervised, and controlled by the Police Force and the National Army. This scenario has triggered diverse emotions including fear and anguish amongst citizens, some of whom, without the means to endure a quarantine in a dignified manner have taken to the streets to demonstrate and demand better conditions, some of which have been attacked in diverse manners by law enforcement.

Read more: In the face of the emergency, what has the government done wrong? (In Spanish)?

In the face of the impact and risk, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, issued a communiqué in April due to the excessive use of force in the security measures for COVID-19.

In the communiqué, UN human rights experts consider that vulnerable people that have been disproportionally affected by the virus should not be victimized once again because of the state of emergency, recalling and recognizing that inclusively in exceptional situations the use of force should maintain legal criteria, proportionality, necessity, and precaution.

They also called upon not using force and avoid damages that could end in the death of people and even more those vulnerable for their poverty situation. It is striking that it refers to vulnerable people but it doesn’t refer to inequality: the former speaks of the threat a person may endure but does not refer to the structural cause of said threat which is based on an unequal structure. Said model reproduces and makes permanent the accumulation of just a few and the impoverishment evidenced in the concentration of wealth in hands a chosen few.

Control excesses

The policies of the States support the idea that it must strengthen during the pandemic, therefore the exceptionality may be seen as a tool to strengthen the state apparatus. Although this may be necessary, it’s not the same to foster the use of force and control or base the robustness of the state by toughening police intervention.

Read more:Economic measures due to the COVID-19, do they work? (in Spanish.)

South Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han considers that local sovereignty measures in exceptionality are not enough to answer to the situation. He adds that the most effective manner to calm the virus is to control the lives of subjects using computer algorithms as was done in China and Japan, implying a rupture of the private world and a redeployment of citizens as a form of sustenance.

In turn, French Philosopher Alain Badiou highlights that despite the globality of the phenomenon, national governments assume the decisions to stop the propagation of the virus and in exceptional cases, they take restrictive measures to control the enemy, in this case, the COVID-19. Inclusively he suggests the world is at war (against the pandemic) and amid this belligerent status, the most authoritative policies seem necessary. However, for Badiou, the imperative “stay home” should be accompanied by proposals for those who do not have a home or cannot stay at home.

What these and other authors say is the concern for the control excesses amid a state of exceptionality produced by the virus. This scenario turns proper for abuse of power and use of force as well as for the violation of human rights.

Examples of this have been seen throughout the country. An NGO called Temblores through its online platform has registered 22 cases of police violence during the quarantine, including 3 cases of gender violence, and at least one case of sexual violence.

According to Fundación Paz y Reconciliación, on April 15 in the Bogotá locality of Ciudad Bolívar, there were protests due to the lack of food which ended in repression with tear gas and stun grenades used by the Colombian Police Mobile Anti-Riot Squad which affected the elderly and children, among others. The Office of the Mayor of Bogotá said this elite squad was used to avoid a robbery. Excessive use of force impacted the community that had nothing to do with the situation.

This violent control of demonstrations ends up stigmatizing protesters as criminals, validating the abuse of power and leaving behind a series of injured as occurred with the wave of social protests in Chile and Colombia last year. 

On the other hand, rural areas have suffered with particular complexity the escalation of violence in their territories. Amid the quarantine, the government intensified forced eradication of crops since March 25 in the provinces of Putumayo, Caquetá, Córdoba, Nariño, Chocó, and the Catatumbo region in Norte de Santander. This incursion of more than 100 people, endangers the community for contagion, takes away the sustenance of inhabitants and also threatens their food security.

Amid the protests of the community, Alejandro Carvajal in Catatumbo was assassinated, Marco Rivadeneira in Putumayo, and in Caquetá, members of the Army shot their weapons against the peasants, while in Chocó they dusted crops with helicopters.

Read more: Recommendations to not forget children in vulnerability status (in Spanish.)

However, the concern is not only in Colombia but has been seen across the continent and the world. In El Salvador, there have been more than 300 events of police abuse and more than 50 in Venezuela; other countries such as Argentina, Chile, and Peru have also had their share of protests.

Violations of human rights during the quarantine

It is contradictory that the UN calls on respect for the lives and dignity of human beings and non-use of violence without questioning the system that generates the inequalities that increase vulnerability. Advocating for dignity without supporting change leads to temporary and superficial solutions that do not respond to the issue at hand.

This same system points and criminalizes those who protest and cannot bear the crisis, imposing on them a series of restrictive measures to their rights without warranting dignified conditions amongst the state of emergency. Additionally, the rights guarantor states aggravate the situation stigmatizing, pursuing, and violently enforcing the law over those on the streets that are there for necessity.

To compel a person or family to stay home even if they do not have the resources to endure the quarantine, without warranting minimum living wages is outrageous as is breaking the proportionality of the force, sending in police forces and the army to violate people with hunger. In other words, awarding priority to order and control before the welfare and dignified life of people shows the great ethical turn our society has made.

Throughout history, the states of exception due to wars, economic crises, alteration of the internal order, among others, have allowed refocusing the ways society is organized. The COVID-19 emergency will surely help as a reference to appreciate more those we have close, value the natural resources that sustain us, and be more empathetic and solidary, among others, as crises can be opportunities for change.

Read more: The difficulties of being an immigrant child (in Spanish.)

The purpose of all governments should be to warrant a dignified life for every citizen; this should foster a firm authority but with limitations and inclusively, with said focus, think why inequality has become natural and why stigmatizing those who protest should produce changes in the forms of government toward full human welfare.

We mustn’t forget that human rights are unmovable ethical principles that should direct the course of actions, inclusively in extraordinary and exceptional moments like those we are currently living. Life and dignity need to be the purpose of any intervention and therefore the use of force should be restrained and above all maintain the proportionality.


1 According to the Colombian Political Constitution of 1991, Title 6 of Chapter VII sets force the conditions of the states of exception: Article 215 bestows powers to the President to order a state of emergency for 30 days that may be prolonged to 90 days during a year.



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