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Lethal in disguise: do crowd-control weapons need to be more tightly regulated?

A report by the International Network of Civil Liberties Organizations (INCLO) and Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) details the health consequences of  "less-lethal" weapons, with a call for more regulation.

Police use tear gas at an Umbrella Movement protest in Hong Kong in 2014. Image: Studio Incendo/Flickr. Some rights reserved.

This article is part of Right to Protest, a partnership project with human rights organisations CELS and INCLO, with support from the ACLU, examining the power of protest and its fundamental role in democratic society. 

In recent years, there has been a rise in the number of popular protests around the world. In many cases, police and security forces have responded to these protests in ways that profoundly undermine the fundamental rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression, often leading to escalations in violence through unwarranted, inappropriate or disproportionate uses of force. Law enforcement throughout the world is increasingly responding to popular protests with crowd-control weapons (CCWs).

However, there is a significant gap in knowledge about the health effects of CCWs and an absence of meaningful international standards or guidelines around their use. The proliferation of CCWs – kinetic impact projectiles, chemical irritants, water cannons, disorientation devices, acoustic weapons and directed energy weapons – without adequate regulation, training, monitoring and/or accountability has led to the widespread and routine use or misuse of these weapons, resulting in injury, disability and death.

Because of this, the International Network of Civil Liberties Organizations (INCLO) and Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) partnered to document the health consequences of CCWs and examine their roles and limitations in protest contexts and make recommendations about their safe use. This resulted in our in-depth report, Lethal in Disguise, as well as the video below.

Misuse of crowd-control weapons – with serious consequences

There are many flagrant examples of the misuse of CCWs, which are documented in detail in our report. In Kenya in January 2015, five children and one police officer were injured in a stampede resulting from tear gas being fired directly at schoolchildren protesting the seizure of a playground.

In the United States, police intervention in the 2014 Black Lives Matter protests included the indiscriminate use of tear gas, disorientation devices, acoustic devices, beanbag rounds and rubber bullets, as described in openDemocracy's interview with BLM activist and lawyer Justin Hansford.

In 2015, Shaimaa’ El-Sabbagh, a 31-year-old activist and member of the Egyptian Popular Socialist Alliance party, was killed in a public assembly that was forcibly dispersed by police using crowd- control weapons. El-Sabbagh was shot with a 12-gauge shotgun, a weapon commonly used by the Egyptian police, particularly in responding to protests. She died from internal bleeding in the lung caused by birdshot injuries sustained to the chest, back and face. In another case in Egypt, a police officer was caught on video deliberately firing pellets at protesters’ upper bodies in order to maximise injury. 

And in Jerusalem, black sponge-tipped rubber bullets are used by Israeli police and security forces as crowd-control weapons, but their unregulated use has led to serious injury – even to people not involved in demonstrations, as shown by Tali Mayer in her project with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) photographing Palestinians injured by these bullets. 

A rapidly growing industry – yet few regulations

CCW development has spread across the globe during the last two decades and the number of companies that manufacture and trade in these weapons has greatly increased. While traditional manufacturers continue to develop CCWs (in France, Germany, Israel, the United Kingdom and the United States), new companies are emerging globally, with production now occurring in more than 50 countries. The increase in the use of force during protests may be explained by the rapidly growing supply of CCWs, which makes weapons cheaper for various law enforcement units to purchase and then utilise with little provocation. 

Unfortunately, international mechanisms have not kept pace with the rapid development of crowd- control technologies and techniques. International standards addressing the use of CCWs are very limited and there are no limitations on the kinds of weapons that may be used in demonstrations, or on the manufacture and trade of CCWs.

The lack of evidence-based regulations on the use of CCWs is exacerbated by the relatively underdeveloped standards on: how to effectively police protests; how to isolate small pockets of protesters who may turn violent without resorting to the use of indiscriminate force; how to prevent escalation and confrontation between protesters and the police or security forces; and how to mitigate any harm or injury when it is necessary to use force – among other issues related to the policing of protests.

While CCWs may theoretically offer an option for reduced force, in practice, and perhaps because of the assumption that they are always less lethal, the weapons are often used in an indiscriminate manner, without exhausting all other possible peaceful means first. This is due, in large part, to inadequate pre-deployment testing, insufficient training, lack of regulations and poor accountability mechanisms.

A lack of accountability

An effective accountability mechanism is a key element in promoting appropriate crowd management techniques and the proportionate use of force by law enforcement. Unfortunately, in most cases, there are no efficient accountability mechanisms in place. Even in countries in which an external police oversight agency exists, it is usually too weak and lacks the necessary powers, resources, independence, and transparency to be effective. The prosecution and conviction of law enforcement officials who use CCWs in an unlawful or excessive way is rare.

The perception of CCWs as non-lethal mechanisms results in weaker controls on their use: weapons and munitions registries are often not kept or they are concealed. In some cases, post-incident documentation is limited to recording munitions discharge, while detailed recording of incidents and of injuries is absent. Most of this information, if available, is concealed from the public or from independent experts and monitors. This renders accountability measures impossible or ineffective. 

Is state use of crowd-control weapons justified? And if so, how should their use be regulated?

INCLO and PHR believe that the use of CCWs in assemblies should be a last resort and must always meet the tests of proportionality, necessity, legality and accountability. The fact that an assembly may be considered unlawful does not justify the use of CCWs. In any event, the explicit goal of any intervention in a protest situation should be to de-escalate the situation and promote and protect the safety and the rights of those present.

Our report includes detailed recommendations to reduce injuries, disabilities and death caused by CCWs, to encourage the creation of international guidelines for the use of CCWs, to ensure protection of the rights to freedom of assembly, association, and expression, and to develop safe practices for the occasions where these weapons are deployed. 

The most effective method to prevent violence in the context of protests is to engage in negotiations and open a dialogue with protesters. If CCWs are deployed, their use should always be necessary and proportionate to the threat faced and to the legitimate aim pursued.


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