Accountability concerns the responsibility of individual law enforcement officials, law enforcement agencies, and States for potentially unlawful use of force. Accountability is required by international law and both legal and practical measures must exist domestically.


Firearms are defined in the 2001 Firearms Protocol as follows:Art. 3(a), Protocol against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, their Parts and Components and Ammunition, Supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime.

“Firearm” shall mean any portable barrelled weapon that expels, is designed to expel or may be readily converted to expel a shot, bullet or projectile by the action of an explosive, excluding antique firearms or their replicas. Antique firearms and their replicas shall be defined in accordance with domestic law. In no case, however, shall antique firearms include firearms manufactured after 1899;

Inhumane treatment

Under the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, "No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment."Art. 7, 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

In general terms, cruel treatment refers to pain or suffering that is applied wantonly, gratuitously, or sadistically; inhuman treatment is the inflicting of severe pain or suffering; while degrading treatment is intended to humiliate the victim. In contrast, torture is primarily committed when the victim is in the physical power of the perpetrator, whether or not he or she has been formally arrested by a law enforcement official. Inhumane treatment is an unofficial short term used to describe these different unlawful acts.

Law enforcement official

In accordance with the official commentary to Article 1 of the 1979 Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials, “the term ‘law enforcement officials’ includes all officers of the law, whether appointed or elected, who exercise police powers, especially the powers of arrest or detention”.  Law enforcement officials include the military, “whether uniformed or not”, as well as other State security forces, wherever they exercise such powers. 

Less-lethal weapons

The term ‘less-lethal’ is not formally defined under international law, but is generally understood to designate a wide array of weapons whose ordinary use typically results in death less often than do firearms; Less-lethal weapons range from the traditional police baton to encompass pepper spray, tear gas, conducted electrical weapons such as Tasers®, flash-bang grenades, rubber and plastic bullets, water cannon, acoustic weapons, and malodorants.


The principle of necessity holds that police and other law enforcement officials may only use minimum necessary force for a legitimate law enforcement purpose. Once the need for any force has passed, application of further force will thus be unlawful. 


The principle of precaution requires that the authorities plan law enforcement operations in a manner that minimises the risk of the police having resort to a potentially lethal weapon and thereby to lessen the possibility of death or serious injury to a member of the public or law enforcement official. 


The principle of proportionality sets an upper limit on when minimum necessary force may be lawful, based on the threat posed to life or limb and/or to property.

Shooting to stop

As set out in Basic Principle 9 of the 1990 Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms, firearms may be used by law enforcement officials when it is necesssary to do so in self-defence or defence of others against the imminent threat of death or serious injury. While death may result from the use of firearms, this should not normally be the intent. 

Shooting to kill

As set out in Basic Principle 9 of the 1990 Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms, intentional lethal use of firearms (i.e. shooting with intent to kill) "may only be made when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life".