Police State Watch: Amnesty Targets Tear Gas

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

Mass protests will no doubt be with us for the foreseeable future.

And that means the govenrment – and its police- are going to be using increasingly sophisticated ways of montioring and policing our activity.

What does that mean for us chickens?

I really don’t know, but I can hazard some guesses. And I promise to think about it further, and report back.

Because at minimum, we need to know what they are doing, so as to resist successfully their control.

Amnesty International and Tear Gas

Meanwhile, the venerable human rights organization yesterday launched a resource on global misuse of tear gas, in the US and elsewhere:

The shadowy and poorly regulated global trade of tear gas is fueling police human rights violations against peaceful protesters on a global scale, Amnesty International said today as it launched a new resource analyzing the misuse of the riot control agent around the world.

Tear Gas: An investigation is the organization’s interactive, multimedia site looking into what tear gas is, how it is used and documenting scores of cases of its misuse by security forces worldwide, often resulting in severe injuries or death.

The site is especially relevant today. It comes on the anniversary of the Hong Kong Police Force beginning its months-long barrage of tear gas against peaceful demonstrations – which has recently been renewed.

“Security forces often lead us to believe tear gas is a ‘safe’ way to disperse violent crowds, avoiding having to resort to more harmful weaponry. But our analysis proves that police forces are misusing it on a massive scale,” said Sam Dubberley, Head of the Evidence Lab on Amnesty International’s Crisis Response Programme.

“We documented police forces using tear gas in ways that it was never intended to be used, often in large quantities against largely peaceful protesters or by firing projectiles directly at people, causing injuries and deaths.”

United States Use of Tear Gas

Alas, various state, municipal, and federal officials are enthusiatic proponents of this crowd control techique (Not to mention their international analogues). As Amnesty reports:

Just one of several video clips that were reviewed of police use of tear gas depicts officers in the city of Philadelphia on June 1, 2020 firing repeated volleys of tear gas at dozens of protesters trapped on a steep highway embankment with no safe escape route. Following public outcry over the incident, Philadelphia’s police commissioner reportedly changed her department’s use of force policy the next day, showing that reform is possible.

Amnesty International has been monitoring police forces in cities across the country using tear gas and other crowd control agents in the recent protests, in many instances against apparently peaceful protesters.

“The use of tear gas and other crowd control weapons against protesters as they flee up a highway embankment or people peacefully demonstrating on the doorstep of the White House, demonstrates that something has gone seriously wrong with how law enforcement agencies across the country are policing peaceful protests,” said Justin Mazzola, deputy director of research at Amnesty International USA.

“Time after time, in city after city, we have seen the reckless and unnecessary use of tear gas to disperse protests following the killing of George Floyd. Law enforcement is violating people’s human rights daily out on the streets and must investigate how they used these chemical irritants in reacting to nationwide protests and review their policies on the use of these dangerous crowd control measures. They should be used only used in exceptional circumstances, when no other measures could suffice and should never be a measure of first resort. Police need to immediately de-escalate relations and stop meeting protestors with violence and excessive force. The use of tear gas, rubber bullets and militarized weapons against peaceful protesters should end immediately.”

Tear Gas Abuse

Via open source invesigation, the methodology of which it discusses on its website, Amnesty has been systematiically documenting the use and misuse of tear gas throughout he world:

Tear gas has been fired through the windshield of a passenger car, inside a school bus, at a funeral procession, inside hospitals, residential buildings, metros, shopping malls, and – strangely – in virtually empty streets.

Security forces have also fired canisters directly at individuals, leading to fatalities; and from trucks, jeeps and drones whizzing by at high speeds. Those on the receiving end have included climate protesters, high school students, medical staff, journalists, migrants and human rights defenders, such as members of the Bring Back Our Girls movement in Nigeria.

Doctors in Omdurman, outside Sudan’s capital Khartoum, told Amnesty International that security forces and troops raided a hospital emergency room last year, filling it with noxious gas, further injuring 10 patients. One doctor said: “The soldiers fired tear gas and live ammunition inside the hospital, then some came to the emergency room and fired four tear gas canisters; thank God only one exploded.” A tear gas canister was thrown under the bed of a 70-year-old man who was a cardiac arrest patient. He died 10 minutes later.

A video from Venezuela shows a tear gas canister punching a hole in a makeshift wooden shield a protester used to defend himself from police use of the weapon in Caracas. A close miss: just a few centimeters off and it could have caused a life-threatening injury.

Amnesty International documented police abusing tear gas in multiple ways:

  • Firing into confined spaces;
  • Firing directly at individuals;
  • Using excessive quantities;
  • Firing at peaceful protests; and
  • Firing against groups who may be less able to flee or more susceptible to its effects, such as children, older people and people with disabilities.

The site includes video interviews with a range of external analysts – from an emergency physician to experts in policing, and business and human rights – about why tear gas is so harmful when used incorrectly.

Amnesty International joins the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture in equating the use of tear gas in certain situations as amounting to torture or other ill-treatment.

And technological ‘innovation’ is only making things worse, according to jurist,org, Amnesty International launches new resource on global misuse of tear gas, Tear gas is usually comprised of CS gas or pepper spray, but newer versions combine the two or feature a silicon version of CS gas that lasts longer’

Despite the widespread use of tear gas, Amnesty says there so far exist no agreed international regulations on trade in tear gas and other riot control agents. Nor do countries  provide public information on the quantity and destination of their tear gas exports, hampering independent oversight.

What is to Be Done?

According to Amnesty:

Amnesty International and the Omega Research Foundation have campaigned for over two decades for greater controls on the production, use and trade in tear gas and other less lethal weapons. As a result, the UN and regional bodies such as the EU and the Council of Europe have recognized the need to regulate the export of less lethal weapons.

Following high level diplomatic advocacy by the 60 plus states of the Alliance for Torture-Free Trade, supported by Amnesty International and Omega, the UN is now  exploring potential development of international trade controls on less lethal weapons and other goods to prevent their use in torture, other ill-treatment and the death penalty. Amnesty International and Omega are now pressing for such measures to include tear gas and other riot control agents.

“Part of the problem with tear gas is simply that some police forces misunderstand how and when it can be used lawfully, while others choose to ignore such guidance and some have weaponized it,” said Patrick Wilcken, Researcher, Arms Control, Security & Human Rights.

“But part of the solution also needs to be greater scrutiny of the poorly regulated global trade in tear gas and other riot control agents. Tear gas should be covered by the international controls on less lethal weapons and restraints, currently being discussed at the UN.”

I see that Amnesty mentions the EU, and not the US, and I think that means there’s been no meaningful U.S. activity on regulating the production, use and trade in tear gas.

And I’m not that surprised.

After all, it’s been quite some time since the United States has been a human rights bastion – if we ever were – and I’d guess there’s no longer more than a slim minority that supports human rights or would protect civil liberties,

Now, when more mass political unrest has been seen in the  U.S. and elsewhere than in decades, seems to be a bad time to raise questions about use of tear gas.

But no.

This is exactly when these and other questions should and must be raised about oppressive methods of crowd control.

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  1. urblintz

    Thanks for this, Jerri-Lynn.

    I am most surprised (not really because I’ve lost faith in AI) by what was not emphasized: Tear gas is a chemical weapon banned in international law for use in warfare:

    “The 1925 Geneva Protocol categorized tear gas as a chemical warfare agent and banned its use in war shortly after World War I. The protocol was signed at a conference held in Geneva and took effect on Feb. 8, 1928, according to the United Nations website…

    In 1993, nations could begin signing the U.N.’s Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) that outlawed the use of riot control agents in warfare. Riot control agents under the convention are defined as, “Any chemical not listed in a Schedule, which can produce rapidly in humans sensory irritation or disabling physical effects which disappear within a short time following termination of exposure.”

    A database by the International Committee of the Red Cross shows the ban of riot control agents in war went into effect in 1997, but still made it legal for law enforcement use. The Senate approved the CWC in a 74-26 vote on April 25, 1997.”

    What’s illegal in war is legal against protesting citizens.

    Perverse, to say the least…

  2. David in Santa Cruz

    Thank you for bringing attention to this issue. I personally do not condone the destruction or defacement of property as a manifestation of protest, but I strongly support the occupation of public space as an expression of grievance — even if it temporarily interferes with traffic circulation and commerce.

    As we have seen in the West with the repression of the Gillets Jaunes, with Occupy, and now with #blacklivesmatter, state intolerance of the expression of grievances through the occupation of public space results in unnecessary repression. It is an expression of the colonialist impulse — techniques reminiscent of settler occupations in Algeria, South Africa, and Palestine. The state appears to be acting irrationally, eroding the willingness of all to engage in democratic dialogue.

    The repressive use of tear gas by police to control crowds who aren’t destroying property is not only torturous and inhumane — it is a regressive and undemocratic exercise in futility.

  3. Bob

    The effectiveness of the Geneva Protocol is in a large part due to the inability to control (target) gas agents. This lack of control means that the gas can be as deadly to the folks using the gas as it is to the folks that are to be controlled.

    There were some horrific incidents of wind shifts causing mass casualties in WW1. And there was a release of Mustard Gas at Bari, Italy in WW2.

    The use of tear gas as a crowd control agent will sooner or later cause mass casualties in the police forces.

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