Print Friendly and PDF
only search openDemocracy.net

A hundred years of toxic humanitarianism

The history of tear gas traces a metamorphosis from chemical weapon of warfare to 'legitimate' crowd control technology. Whilst casualties are persistently blamed on 'misuse' by police and security forces, history reveals tear gas to be an inherently dangerous weapon.

In August 2012, eighteen months into protests in Bahrain, Physicians for Human Rights released a report documenting 34 tear gas-related deaths. These included deaths arising from tear gas fired into enclosed locations such as cars, homes and mosques, as well as from canister strikes to the head. Lost eyes, miscarriages, and respiratory failures also filled the list of causalities. 

Human rights campaign groups put pressure on governments to stop shipments by describing injuries as a result of the misuse of tear gas. Amnesty International stated that tear gas in Bahrain was “being used inappropriately,” while Physicians for Human Rights titled their report ‘Weaponizing Tear Gas’.  

Last week this language of ‘incorrect use’ appeared again. Human Rights Watch sent out a press release calling on Turkey to “End Incorrect, Unlawful Use of Teargas.” But what does it mean to ‘misuse’ a weapon like tear gas? How did tear gas become an acceptable weapon for public order policing in the first place? And why, as so many commentators point out, is tear gas banned in war but permitted for 'keeping the peace'?

Tear gas: a chemical weapon of warfare

News stories on tear gas tend to cite the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention, which prohibited the use of most chemical weapons, as the foundation of these anomalies. It was here that nations signed on to an exception, permitting the use of tear gases for “law enforcement including domestic riot control purposes.” Yet the origins of this exception date back much farther than 1997. To understand how tear gas came to be considered a humanitarian weapon for public order policing we must return to the trenches.

Although primitive forms of tear gas existed prior to World War I, it was during the war that research and resources were heavily invested to develop lachrymatory agents—what we commonly refer to as ‘tear gases’ (though they aren’t actually a gas). These chemical substances were used in efforts to lure the enemy out from trenches so as to ‘weaken his defences’. Designed for this purpose, tear gas was seen as a form of both physical and psychological attack.[i]

It was precisely this aggressive use of tear gas that led to its initial ban under the Geneva Protocol of 1925—a ban the US had not signed on to. Having witnessed the ways tear gas was used as part of trench warfare, delegates in Geneva argued that it was inhumane. However, by the time the protocol was ratified, military and state officials were already busy promoting the benefits of such weapons for controlling the masses.

Spreading the crowd control gospel

In 1919 a former US Gas Officer, General Amos Fries, began a mission to turn this wartime technology into an everyday policing tool. To accomplish this task Fries needed a public relations strategy. As one of his accomplices, Mr. Chadbourne, advised, he must "arrange for a man who knows gas warfare to bring writers and others who might be used to spread the gospel.”[ii]

And spread the gospel they did. Articles populated trade magazines advertising tear gas. One claimed, “It is easier for man to maintain morale in the face of bullets than in the presence of invisible gas” while at the same time elevating the weapon’s moral status: “There are many instances on record in which tear gas could have been used with a consequent saving of human life.”[iii] Unlike bullets, tear gas would “isolate the individual from the mob spirit” and make the mob “a blind stampede to get away from the source of torture.”[iv]

Described as a “mob spanker,” tear gas was purported to be as “innocuous and efficacious as the family slipper.” This purported harmlessness meant that police needn’t wait for orders or hesitate from deploying the weapon until violence broke out. Rather, tear gas could be applied without qualms “the moment the mob appears and begins to form.”[v]

In post-World War I America, such understandings of ‘mob psychology’ came to be used by early practitioners in the public relations industry. In fact, some of the earliest uses of PR were developed to secure positive media images for mining companies engaged in violent strikebreaking practices.[vi] The impressive PR campaign that turned tear gas into a ‘harmless’ weapon for repressing dissent, gave governments, police, manufacturers and military men a way to control both the crowd and the public image of ethical crowd control.

Growing markets in repressing dissent

By the 1930s the US market for ‘harmless’ tear gas was booming. Labour organising across the country provided ample sales for major manufacturers who rallied police forces and private strike-breaking services to purchase their wares.  Meanwhile, colonial uprisings were used to generate demand for tear gas in foreign markets. The US shipped out chemical supplies to Panama, The Philippines and Hawaii. Across the Atlantic, the UK was also using tear gas to counter political dissent abroad, stocking colonial outposts in India and across South East Asia with tear gas canisters and grenades.

These early uses of tear gas did not come without criticism. Already banned in warfare by signatories of the Geneva Protocol, the legality of tear gas for domestic deployment came under question in the US Senate. In the 1930s a major inquiry into strike-breaking practices found evidence of people’s injuries and heard testimony from medical experts. In its final report published in 1939 the committee concluded that “in agreement with the journal of the American Medical Association, tear gas is not the practically harmless substance it is commonly reputed to be. Rather it is a weapon, the use of which can result in severe, lasting, and possibly permanent disabilities."[vii] 

But despite the views of prestigious medical associations and government inquiries, the military-industry complex in the US, UK and Canada (among other nations) continued their manufacture and marketing of tear gas. At the Tripartite Conference in 1958—a group set up for knowledge exchange and resource sharing—the three countries made a commitment to develop new forms of nonlethal weapons and tear gases.[viii]

By 1965 the UK had announced the release of a ‘modernized tear gas’—a redesigned version of a compound called CS created by US chemists back in 1928. A circular sent to potential tear gas buyers professed both the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of this modernized tear gas:  “The superiority of CS is due [to] its more pronounced and more extensive irritant effect … It is to be expected that an increase in the demand for CS, leading to production on a larger scale, would result in a reduction in the cost."[ix]

Along with its modern invention, the UK’s position on tear gas soon came into question. As with other Imperial nations, the British Empire had already established a hefty portfolio of foreign markets. Continuing into today, colonies, war zones and occupied territories are often the first testing site for new military technologies.[x] Between 1962-1964 the UK saw over £350,000 (about £6 million in todays currency value) in export sales to Indonesia, Kenya, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Nigeria, Portugal, Singapore, and Rhodesia. Yet while deployments were sanctioned abroad, tear gas had never been deployed in the UK against protesters. In the summer of 1969, this abruptly changed.

The battle of Bogside and its aftermath

At 11:45pm on August 12th, Rossville Street in the Bogside area of Derry went down in history as the first UK site of civilian tear gassing. On advice from the Ministry of Defence, the Royal Ulster Constabulary telephoned through to the Minister for Home Affairs, who had recently returned from a trip to the US, and quickly approved the deployment. From just after midnight August 13th until 4:30pm on August 14th, Bogside residents faced 36 hours of CS tear gassing. In the end, 14 grenades and 1,091 cartridges containing 12.5g of CS blanketed the Bogside.[xi] The gas had entered homes, indiscriminately harming children and the elderly. Media reports sent waves of public outcry, leading to the first wide-scale medical investigation into the effects of CS tear gas.

The investigation was conducted by the Himsworth Committee, a group of medical experts—all with military ties. One member even worked as a researcher for the Ministry of Defence.[xii] Despite the testimony of local GPs accounting for various injuries and ill health effects, the committee found no reason to condemn the use of CS gas. Instead, the report declared CS safe for the masses without “evidence of any special sensitivity of the elderly, children or pregnant women.”[xiii] While it warned for caution when CS was used in enclosed locations, the committee’s findings were interpreted like a safety certificate or FDA approval label.

For the next two decades the report served as a key justification for the international community to continue its deployment and development of tear gases. In 1989 it appeared to justify the United State’s export of $6.5 million worth of tear gas to Israel between January of 1987 and December of 1988, spanning the beginning of the first intifada. This tear gas was thrown into houses, clinics, schools, hospitals and mosques, often in residential areas.[xiv]

In the face of these continued false claims to safety, concerned groups and individuals worked to raise awareness of the truth about tear gas. Physicians for Human Rights increased their monitoring and reporting of its adverse effects and health risks, conducting investigations in South Korea and Palestine in the 1980s. Articles in major medical journals likewise continued to call for more research and regulation. Yet despite this production of counter-information, the Himsworth Committee’s government approved, military sponsored report, continued to provide CS with what an official 1990 US document referred to as a “clean bill of health.”[xv]

Rather than lead to a reconsideration of tear gases’ lethality, the decade that followed saw the proliferation of CS and pepper spray tear gases in mobile, handheld form. In 1991 the first aerosol pepper spray was deployed to police in the US. Soon after, similar handheld sprays of CS tear gas were dispatched to police in the UK, among other countries. By the end of the decade, handheld tear gases were standard equipment for street patrols and prison security guards.

It didn’t take long before numerous legal cases arose. Sprays were being used during arrests to harass and at times torture people. A 1995 ACLU report documented a number of deaths in custody related to pepper spray.  Yet despite damning inquiries into these ‘misuses’ throughout the 1990s, the PR rhetoric of safety that classified tear gases as a ‘non-lethal’ and humanitarian weapon choice continued to reign, facilitating the creation of ever more profitable tear gas markets.

Modernised 'non-lethality': new technology, old PR

In recent years, following the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, nonlethal technologies have again been aggressively marketed to control protest and uprisings. Take, for example, this promotional NATO video for non-lethal technologies released in the late spring of 2011. The first few seconds feature shots of protesters, in Tahrir Square and elsewhere, engaging in protest and public assembly. Then enters the voiceover. ‘Chaos,’ ‘turmoil’ and ‘conflict’ are the reasons given for the increased need to acquire non-lethal arms.  

This NATO video is just one promotional piece in the vast PR and marketing world of the non-lethal industry that has seen sales increase. For example, Condor Non-Lethal Technologies, whose tear gas is used in Bahrain, Turkey and Brazil, has seen a 33 percent revenue increase via a new marketing strategy engaging communication tools and trade show participation.

Likewise new technologies are continually being developed, perfecting the power of these poisonous projectiles. Condor’s dancer grenade was featured at the Milipol Security expo in February 2013, debuting on the streets of Taksim and Sao Paulo this June. Meanwhile, the UK continues its tests of the Discriminating Irritant Projectile, marketed for riot control, which can fire tear gases from 100 metres away.

As more and more forms of lethal ‘non-lethal’ arms are sold around the world, reasons justifying their deployment also appear to be expanding. Since January of this year, tear gas has been used on mass on students wanting to be able to afford to eat, indigenous communities stripped of land, people protesting rising fuel prices and increased bus fares, and even refugees waiting in a queue.

With these deployments we have witnessed more canister strikes to the head, grenades launched into enclosed spaces, and tear gas offensives coupled with the firing of rubber bullets and live ammunition. These deployments continue to leave people dead, disfigured or with chronic health conditions. Yet they remain cast as exceptions—as if tear gas is safe, and its ‘misuse’ is the problem.

As reports from Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Physicians for Human Rights and the Omega Research Foundation pile up, perhaps it is time to realize that the problem is tear gas itself. Alongside these organisations, and international campaigns like facing tear gas, it is time to insist on new terms of debate; terms that refuse the corporate rhetoric of non-lethality; that reject the deadly, anti-democratic dream of pacification through poison. In the 100 year long history of tear gas use, it is clear that there has never been anything safe, harmless or humanitarian about these chemical weapons.


[i] L. F. Haber The Poisonous Cloud: Chemical Warfare in the First World War. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002.

[ii] National Archives II, Chemical Warfare Service , General Amos Fries, RG 175, box 15

[iii] Amos Fries. ‘By-Products of Chemical Warfare’ Industrial and Engineering Chemistry. October 1928, pp. 1083.

[iv] Theo m. Knappen ‘War gases for Dispersing Mobs’ Gas Age Record. November 26, 1921, pp. 702-703.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] John Stauber. Toxic Sludge is Good for You. Monroe, MN: Common Courage Press, 1995.

[vii] Industrial Munitions Digest,’ Violations of Free Speech and Rights of Labor. Senate Report No 6, part 3, 1939.

[viii] Robert Harris and Jeremy Paxman. A Higher Form Of Killing. New York: Hill and Wang, 1982, pp. 174 & 183.

[ix] King’s College. Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives, Gassed collection, Box O.

[x] British exports of CS gas were also used during this time in Vietnam. Rubber bullets were tested in Northern Ireland and early uses took place in the Occupied Territories of Palestine.

[xi] Minutes of the Himsworth Committee Meetings, Himsworth Collection, Wellcome Trust.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] King’s College, Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives, Gassed collection, Box O.

[xiv] “Use of U.S.-Manufactured Tear Gas in the Occupied Territories” NSIAD-89-128, Apr 13, 1989 available at http://www.gao.gov/assets/220/211128.pdf

[xv] King’s College  Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives, Gassed collection, Box O1, transcript of interview with Dr. HU, Outsider Television tape 26.

About the author

Anna Feigenbaum is a lecturer in media and politics at Bournemouth University. She is an author of Protest Camps (forthcoming with Zed) and is currently writing a book about the political history of tear gas to be published with Verso. Follow@drfigtree on Twitter


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the
oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.