IACtHR: Argentina Responsible for Racial Profiling, Death of Black Man

IACtHR hearing in Acosta Martínez et al. v. Argentina
Credit: IACtHR via Flickr

In a new judgment, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR) condemned the use of racial profiling in the 1996 arrest of José Delfín Acosta Martínez, a Black man who then died after being badly injured in police custody. [IACtHR Press Release (Spanish)] The Court called attention to the general context of racial discrimination, police violence, and racial profiling in Argentina. See I/A Court H.R., Acosta Martínez et al. v. Argentina. Merits, Reparations and Costs. Judgment of August 31, 2020. Series C No. 410 (Spanish). Toward the end of the proceedings before the Court, and following a change in presidential administrations, Argentina recognized its international responsibility for violating the rights to life, liberty, humane treatment, equality and non-discrimination, due process, and judicial protection under the American Convention on Human Rights. See id. at para. 15. The judgment adds to a small body of relevant international jurisprudence, and a larger volume of statements recognizing racial profiling as prohibited discrimination. 

Facts & Procedural History

José Delfín Acosta Martínez was a citizen of Uruguay who had moved to Argentina with his brother in 1982 and created a group to advocate against racial discrimination. See id. at para. 41. [Note: while the Court’s documents are all in Spanish, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) merits report is available in English.] On April 5, 1996, Acosta Martínez was present when police arrested two Brazilian brothers of African descent outside a bar in Buenos Aires, supposedly based on an anonymous report that a person was carrying a weapon in the area. See id. at paras. 42-43. Acosta Martínez tried to intervene, accusing the police of arresting the brothers because they were black. The police arrested him, and there was a physical struggle between them. The reason police gave for his arrest was intoxication. See id. at para. 45. 

At the police station, Acosta Martínez was detained alone, but was badly injured in unclear circumstances. The petitioners alleged police officers beat him, and witnesses heard him screaming. See id. at para. 47. Acosta Martínez died in an ambulance on the way to the hospital. See id. at para. 48. His brother reported seeing injuries on his body, and blood stains and footprints on his clothes.

The official autopsy blamed his death on alcohol and cocaine. See id. at para. 55. As a result, the local court closed the criminal investigation on April 25, 1996, concluding there had been no crime. See id. at para. 61. Once Acosta Martínez’s body was repatriated to Uruguay, a new autopsy was performed, but medical experts disagreed on the cause of death. See id. at para. 57. Acosta Martínez’s mother requested that the investigation be reopened, which it was in May 1998, before being closed again a year later, despite her objections and appeals. See id. at paras. 58-64. During the proceedings, Acosta Martínez’s family members reported being intimidated and threatened. Authorities finally reopened the investigation in 2019, as the case was pending before the IACtHR. See I/A Court H.R., Caso Acosta Martínez y otros Vs. Argentina: Resumen Oficial Emitido por la Corte Interamericana (Spanish). 

The complaint first entered the Inter-American system more than 18 years ago. See id. The IACHR received the petition in June 2002, and admitted it in July 2013. See IACHR, Admissibility Report 36/13, Petition 403-02, José Delfín Acosta Martínez and Family (Argentina), 11 Jul. 2013. The IACHR adopted its merits report in December 2018. See IACHR, Merits Report 146/18, Case 12.906, José Delfín Acosta Martínez and Family (Argentina), 7 Dec. 2018. On April 18, 2019, the IACHR referred the case to the Inter-American Court. [IACHR Press Release] On March 10, 2020, the IACtHR held a public hearing in the case; a recording is available on the Court’s Vimeo page. 

In the hearing, Argentina indicated a change in its position in the case; its final brief accepted its international responsibility for the violations of Acosta Martínez’s rights to life, humane treatment, liberty, equality and non-discrimination, as well as of his family members’ rights to humane treatment, due process, and judicial protection. See I/A Court H.R., Acosta Martínez et al. v. Argentina, Judgment of August 31, 2020, para. 15. 

The Court’s Holding

Although the State fully recognized its responsibility and the context of racial discrimination in Argentina, the Court conducted its own analysis of some of the alleged violations. See id. at paras. 21, 26, 32 et seq. Given the seriousness of the facts and relative lack of Inter-American jurisprudence, the Court determined it was necessary to analyze the scope of the State’s international responsibility for the actions of the Federal Police in illegally and arbitrarily detaining Acosta Martínez. See id. at para. 25.

The Court noted the context of racial discrimination against Black people in Argentina, which it described as long-standing and persisting. It referenced other bodies’ conclusions regarding xenophobia and a tendency to deny the existence of Argentines of African descent, and referred to its own prior findings of pervasive police violence and arbitrary detentions in Argentina. Finally, the Court noted United Nations experts’ conclusions that police in Buenos Aires engaged in racial profiling, including in the “paradigmatic” case of Acosta Martínez. See id. at para. 40.

The Court analyzed the lawfulness of Acosta Martínez’s arrest. It concluded that The “Edicto de Ebriedad y otras Intoxicaciones” was not sufficiently clear, in that it criminalized being “completely intoxicated,” which is not an objectively verifiable state and allowed the police too much discretion. Moreover, the Court determined that criminalizing a temporary state of being (intoxication), rather than specific conduct that affected or endangered anyone, exceeded the State’s punitive authority. See id. at paras. 83-90. As a result, it held that Acosta Martínez’s detention violated his right to liberty. See id. at para. 90.

Next, the Court considered whether Acosta Martínez’s detention was arbitrary. Given the police officers’ actions and the context of discrimination, the Court concluded that the police had been motivated more by racial profiling than a real suspicion that a crime had been committed. It held Argentina responsible for violating the right to liberty. See id. at para. 103.

With regard to reparations, the Court ordered the State to: continue the necessary criminal investigations, include the topics of racial discrimination and racial profiling in its police training, implement an oversight mechanism for complaints against police, and pay damages and costs to Acosta Martínez’s family members. See id. at para. 157.

Related Jurisprudence and Guidance

The judgment builds on the Court’s caselaw concerning arbitrary and discriminatory detentions, including in a case involving the summary detention and expulsion of Haitians from the Dominican Republic. See I/A Court H.R., Case of Expelled Dominicans and Haitians v. Dominican Republic. Preliminary Objections, Merits, Reparations and Costs. Judgment of August 28, 2014. Series C No. 282. In a judgment issued the day after Acosta Martínez, the Court expanded on this line of cases, holding Argentina responsible for the arrest and search of two individuals in the 1990s based only on their appearance and demeanor. See I/A Court H.R., Fernández Prieto and Tumbeiro v. Argentina. Merits and Reparations. Judgment of September 1, 2020. Series C No. 411 (Spanish).

The Inter-American Commission has addressed racial profiling in policing on multiple occassions. For example, in 2009, the IACHR decided a case concerning killings by Brazilian police where it recommended that Brazil take measures to avoid racial discrimination in law enforcement and criminal justice proceedings, although there was not “conclusive” evidence that the victim was killed because of his race in that instance. See IACHR, Admissibility and Merits Report 26/09, Case 12.440, Wallace de Almeida (Brazil), 20 Mar. 2009. In a landmark 2018 report on police violence against Black people in the United States, the IACHR discussed racial profiling at length. See IACHR, Police Violence Against Afro-descendants in the United States (2018). Just last month, the IACHR referred to “racial profiling and police brutality” as areas of concern in a press release calling on the States of the Americas to eliminate discrimination against people of African descent. [IACHR Press Release: Discrimination]

The IACtHR judgment in Acosta Martínez references several outputs of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), including its concluding observations on Argentina. Other guidance by CERD includes its General Recommendations 30, 31, and 34, which called on States to take measures to prevent and counter racial or ethnic profiling or stereotyping. See CERD, General Recommendation XXX on discrimination against non-citizens (2004); CERD, General Recommendation XXXI on the prevention of racial discrimination in the administration and functioning of the criminal justice system (2005); CERD, General Recommendation No. 34: Racial discrimination against people of African descent, UN Doc. CERD/C/GC/34, 3 Oct. 2011. Most specifically, General Recommendation 34 calls on States to “ensure that people of African descent are not victims of practices of racial or ethnic profiling.” See CERD, General Recommendation No. 34, para. 39.

Other UN bodies have also issued relevant statements. The UN Human Rights Committee, for example, issued the first UN treaty body decision concerning racial profiling in 2009. See UN Human Rights Committee, Comm. No. 1493/2006, Williams Lecraft v. Spain, Views of 27 Jul. 2009, UN Doc. CCPR/C/96/D/1493/2006 (17 Aug. 2009). Among other resources, the United Nations has published a manual entitled Preventing and Countering Racial Profiling of People of African Descent: Good Practices and Challenges (2019).

Additional Information

For more information on the Inter-American Human Rights System, Argentina’s international human rights obligations, or the various United Nations human rights mechanisms, visit IJRC’s Online Resource Hub. To stay up-to-date on international human rights news, visit IJRC’s News Room or subscribe to the IJRC Daily.