On May 4, Manipur authorised government officials to issue “shoot at sight” orders to law enforcement personnel dealing with the protesters involved in the ongoing “law and order situation” in the state.
It’s important to examine the human rights principles associated with the order and whether there are obstacles to ensuring those principles are upheld in Manipur.
What does the order say?
The order, which was issued by the state’s home department on May 4, allows officials to issue shoot-at-sight orders. It includes a bare condition for the use of such excessive force. The order notes that a shoot-at-sight order can be issued in “extreme cases” when “the situation could not be controlled”, and only after officials have first sought to use alternative means of persuasion, including issuing a warning and the use of reasonable force.
To understand the risks that this order poses, it is necessary to examine it from a legal and historical standpoint.
Legal principles on the use of force
In the context of protests, such as those currently taking place in Manipur, the use of force by law enforcement personnel is guided by three general principles: the necessity principle, the proportionality principle, and the duty of precaution.
The first two principles have the effect of limiting them to only use force that is both necessary and proportionate to the situation at hand. This means that when they are tasked with dispersing an unruly mob, they must first use non-lethal means to accomplish that goal. These two principles have the effect of implying that, even in extreme circumstances, where they are unable to control an unruly mob, the use of lethal force, such as indiscriminate firing of weapons, would be considered an excessive use of force.
The third principle, on the other hand, requires them to plan their operations to minimise any risks to human rights. This implies that they must consider human rights concerns to reduce the risk of civilian fatalities or serious injuries.
The challenges in the application of these principles in Manipur
While the Manipur government’s order says that the use of excessive force is conditional, it is important to consider whether this reflects the reality of the situation in Manipur.
There are significant challenges in ensuring that the conditions specified in the order are followed by the concerned authorities. Consider how a 20-year-old unarmed boy died in Manipur after being shot in the head by highly trained police commandos. It’s difficult to see how shooting a child in the head, an act that implies a clear intent to kill rather than disarm, could be deemed necessary, let alone proportionate.
Practically, it appears difficult to expect the personnel involved in these operations to exercise restraint when using force. This is especially true because it is unclear whether the personnel have guidelines or a standard operating procedure (SOP) in place to deal with civilians involved in such protests.
Such guidelines are necessary and have been recognised in international human rights law because they help limit the use of lethal force and firearms in sensitive situations such as the Manipur protests.
Another impediment to applying these principles is the state’s continued culture of impunity, which stems primarily from human rights violations committed under AFSPA. An analysis of the use of excessive force in the state would be incomplete if this factor is ignored.
Manipur has seen several cases of extrajudicial executions in the past, with only a small number of these cases being independently investigated.
The government’s response to the ongoing Manipur protests suggests that this culture is unlikely to change. Despite these obvious challenges, it is critical to continue advocating for a change in the way these security forces are allowed to operate.
Jade Lyngdoh is a Meta India tech scholar at the National Law University, Jodhpur. He is interested in the intersection of technology law and policy and human rights.