Skip to main content

It is Human Rights

An armed representative of the state who kills a civilian commits not just a crime like any other person. No, that official commits an abuse of power, a violation of human rights. The states who fail to stop violence against civilians on the part of their armed bodies are, therefore, labeled as violators of human rights.

Not all violence is equal. The difference matters. A civilian killing another civilian is a crime. A member of the police killing a civilian is an entirely different question, legally and morally. The police and other similarly armed bodies are direct representatives of the power of the state. Their duties and obligations toward civilians are qualitatively different from those of civilians. So are their actions, especially the violent ones. The armed forces of the state (police, FBI, SWAT team, National Guard, on-duty member of the armed forces, and the rest) are legally (and morally) obligated to protect the people of the country. That is their sworn duty: to protect the civilian population.

An armed representative of the state who kills a civilian, therefore, commits not just a crime like any other person. No, that official commits an abuse of power, a violation of human rights. The act itself is called a “summary execution.” The states who fail to stop violence against civilians on the part of their armed bodies are, rightfully so, labeled as violators of human rights. We are all familiar with the states so considered–repressive states that eliminate their political enemies through violent means (detention without trial, disappearance, torture, execution). But political opponents are not the only category of people who fall victim to state-sanctioned violence: historically, members of ethnic or racial minorities have also experienced violence at the hands of the armed bodies of the state. Guatemala between 1954 and 1996 comes to mind. There the military government carried out a genocidal campaign against the indigenous Maya population. Not all violations of human rights rise to the level of genocide. Not every government who engages in human rights violations is run by men in olive green uniforms. That is the case for the United States.

Police departments across the country routinely execute black and brown men in plain daylight. We do not know exactly how long those violations of bodily integrity have been taking place—until months ago, there was no daily video evidence for everyone to see. The African-American community has denounced “police brutality” for decades (centuries, really) but who listened to their voices? Even today, Americans refuse to believe that the country’s armed bodies commit such violence. Or, when the visual proof is impossible to dismiss, they defend the police, assuming the person “must have done something” that somehow forced the police to open fire until death.

But ask the question: Who deserves execution at a children’s park? Who deserves execution at a traffic stop? Who deserves execution for failing to raise their arms high above their heads? Who deserves execution for selling CDs or cigarettes? Does anyone deserve execution for talking back?

There was plenty of denial about detentions, disappearances, torture, and execution in Guatemala too. And in El Salvador. And Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, and Paraguay since the 1970s. The elite of every single one of those countries denied their governments violated human rights.

American Secretaries of State echoed the denials — after all, every single one of those governments were US allies in the Cold War against the “evil empire” of the USSR, the state that embodied violations of human rights in the American imagination. That is to be expected. But many ordinary people throughout Latin America made the same argument. If pushed to admit what was in front of their faces, they murmured, “they must have done something.” Because they were not part of the groups experiencing the violence, they refused to accept that their armed bodies were structurally, criminally, systematically violent against Others in their societies. Because their privilege (class, political affiliation, ideological preference, light-skin) protected them from the men with guns, they made excuses for the violence. They supported their armed forces; some even believed the police were the victims. That is where we are in the United States right at the moment. Without a military regime, without the physical elimination of political opponents. No, in the US the armed bodies of the state execute men of color.

But it need not be that way. In contrast to common crime, violations of human rights can be addressed easily. The government knows who the culprits are. They are easily identifiable; they receive a paycheck from the government every month. All the government has to do to stop such behavior is to prosecute the culprits. And here the US can follow the lead of the governments of Argentina, Chile, and Guatemala. All three have made a turn and brought to justice members of their armed bodies for human rights violations. Even if some were abroad in Britain (remember Pinochet?) or Miami and Los Angeles, those governments are investigating and using extradition treaties to make sure those men face trails in the countries where they committed their crimes. By comparison, the US government has an easy task. No borders to cross, no international paperwork to file. Arrest officers responsible for executing civilians. Bring them to trail. And stop letting officers who execute civilians go free. Demonstrate the state is committed to protecting human rights. Because civilian lives matter. Because Black Lives Matter. 

Myrna Santiago is professor of history at Saint Mary’s College of California. Her book, The Ecology of Oil: Environment, Labor and the Mexican Revolution, 1900-1938, won two prizes. She is working on a history of the 1972 Managua earthquake and is looking for witnesses willing to tell their stories:


If you like this article, please sign up for Snapshot, Portside's daily summary.

(One summary e-mail a day, you can change anytime, and Portside is always free.)