July 3, 2013 : A lethal 'non-lethal' weapon

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With tear gas a prominent weapon used to repress the recent uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East, the multi-billion global market has been expanding. Reported incidents of tear gas-related deaths and injuries have prompted critique of its classification as 'non-lethal' and renewed calls for a ban on its use.

Systematic 'misuse'

The use of tear gas as an indiscriminate crowd dispersal weapon is nothing new. A Google map created by Dr. Anna Feigenbaum, a Lecturer in Media and Politics at Bournemouth University leading a research project on the history of tear gas, lists over 75 locations across the world where, since December 2012, tear gas has been used by police against large crowds of protesters. From the Middle Eastern uprisings to anti-capitalist protests in various European countries; from India to South Africa to Brazil: scattered protesters gasping for air amid thick, white clouds has become a familiar scene on news reports.

Although described by manufacturers and police as 'non-lethal' or 'less lethal', numerous cases from Palestine, Bahrain, Turkey and elsewhere have shown that tear gas can cause serious injury, even death, especially when used in large quantities, in closed spaces or fired directly at people at close range and high velocity, rather than at a 45 degree angle and from a 120 yard distance.

Many scientific studies have raised doubts about its classification as 'non-lethal'. A famous study from 2000 on the use of CS gas by the FBI concluded that, if no gas masks were used and people exposed to the gas were trapped in a closed space, “there is a distinct possibility that this kind of CS exposure can significantly contribute to or even cause lethal effects.”

Defenders of the technology – that is, manufacturers, police forces and the academics and writers on their payroll – often argue that the 'tragedies' are simply a result of 'misuse', contrary to the manufacturers' instructions. But the history of tear gas suggests that such weapons are routinely 'misused' by police and security forces when mass protests 'get out of control'.

Turkey: gases, tears and home-made masks

Tear gas features in many of the iconic images emerging from Turkey's ongoing mass protests. From the woman in a red dress being sprayed in the face with tear gas by a cop in Istanbul to a dervish wearing a gas mask doing a Sufi dance on the street and people wearing funny-looking masks made of plastic bottles cut in half. The reason: in the first 15 days of the protests, which began on 28 May, Turkish police fired over 150,000 tear gas canisters.

According to the Turkish Medical Association, which helped organise many of the field clinics in Istanbul, over 12,000 people required medical care in that same period after being exposed to CS gas, CR gas, pepper spray and other types of tear gas. Hundreds were admitted to hospital, though many others avoided going as police were following and arresting people there. About 53 per cent of those treated said they had been exposed to the toxic gases for between one and eight hours; 11 per cent for more than 20 hours. Around 20 per cent of the injuries were open sores and fractures to the head, face, eyes, thorax and abdomen, resulting from being struck directly by tear gas canisters.

The use of tear gas by the Turkish police has been on such a scale that one of the protesters' five demands is: “Teargas bombs and other similar materials must be prohibited.” Tara O'Grady, an expert on tear gas who has just returned from Turkey, says:

"Tear gas has been used to suppress protesters and as a form of collective punishment in Turkey over the last few weeks. The many different types of gas that they are using means that there is no one common response to the medical problems and complications. Some of them burn your skin…your eyes, nose, ears, throat, and lungs, you are just really overwhelmed with an almost convulsive reaction to it. People have suffered from palpitations for days afterwards. People can't eat, they are vomiting blood, urinating blood. The water cannons they are using also have some form of chemical in them, with a similar effect to the tear gas canisters. And this is indiscriminate. There are children who are suffering with this."

While the dramatic use of tear gas in Turkey has gripped international attention, it is by no means a unique case.

Bahrain: tear gas as a weapon of mass repression

Since the early 1990s, Bahrain has hosted an important US military naval base. Currently being upgraded, it was instrumental in the Second Gulf War, the invasion of Iraq and other US adventures in the region. The tiny island in the Arabian (or Persian) Gulf also provides easy access to the Indian Ocean and is a stone's throw away from Iran. Its vast reserves of natural gas, aluminium and other natural resources entrench its position as a 'strategic ally' of the US and Saudi Arabia in the region.

This may partly explain why the Bahraini uprising, which started in February 2011, has received relatively little attention in both Arab and Western mainstream media compared to other uprisings in the region. Al-Jazeera is a case in point.

Yet the level of repression there has not been less than that seen in other neighbouring countries, save for Libya and Syria, perhaps, where the popular revolutions were quickly militarised. The heavy use of US-manufactured tear gas has been instrumental in enabling this repression to continue.

Bahraini – and Saudi – police and security forces have been systematically using tear gas against the popular protests on an unprecedented scale. Countless reports, pictures and videos posted on the internet show riot police firing volleys of tear gas at crowds, sometimes at close range, as well as into people's homes and vehicles (see, for example, the 2013 documentary 'Bahrain: The Clouds of Death'). The use of tear gas has been so widespread and excessive that people are reportedly “shoving wet towels under the doors and the nooks and crannies of windows and ventilators to stop tear gas from entering.”

In their 2012 report 'Weaponizing Tear Gas', Physicians for Human Rights documented tens of cases of “maiming, blinding, and even killing of civilian protesters” in Bahrain as a result of tear gas attacks. Based on witness statements, medical records and forensic evidence, the report describes repeated instances of miscarriage and grievous wounds suffered by civilians who had been exposed to tear gas or struck directly by canisters fired from a few feet away. An earlier report documented 34 tear gas related deaths, including women and children. That is approximately one in every three deaths since the Bahraini uprising began.

“The unprecedented use of tear gas in Bahrain proves that it is a lethal chemical weapon,” says John Horne from Bahrain Watch, an activist group that has been documenting the Bahraini regime's use of arms against protesters. “Large parts of the population have had to suffer collective punishment through the excessive, indiscriminate use of tear gas fired into residential areas. Individuals have also been directly targeted and killed from the blunt trauma of metallic canisters shot at high velocity. The security forces are operating far beyond the boundaries of existing international frameworks and even the manufactures own guidelines.”

Egypt: still a major importer of tear gas

Shortly after the Egyptian revolution broke out in January 2011, the US State Department approved a number of export licenses for the shipment of US-manufactured crowd control weapons, including tear gas, to Egypt. According to Amnesty International, one US company shipped 21 tons of tear gas grenades and canisters – enough for 40,000 rounds – in addition to a separate shipment of 17.9 tons. At least three people are known to have died in Cairo's Tahrir Square from tear gas inhalation. Many cases of unconsciousness and epileptic-like convulsions were also reported.

Ironically, earlier this year, well after the fall of Egypt's former dictator Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian Interior Ministry reportedly ordered 140,000 tear gas canisters from the US, worth USD 2.5 million. To understand this apparent irony, one must understand how the Egyptian revolution was co-opted – or 'hijacked', as an increasing number of Egyptians put it – by the Muslim Brothers leadership, as well as Egypt's strategic importance to the US.

The US continues to give Egypt some $2 billion a year in 'aid', making it the second-largest recipient of US money after Israel. Most of this goes to the military and security forces. The price is 'peace' with Israel and privileged US military access to the Suez Canal and Egyptian airspace.

Another place in the region where tear gas is heavily used is the Occupied Palestinian Territories, where the Israeli military routinely uses different types of tear gas against Palestinian demonstrators. The West Bank and Gaza have been described as a “testing ground” for the global security industry, where the strength of gas used varies and evidence suggests that gas with a higher propensity to incapacitate has been used (for more on this, see this Corporate Watch article).

A growing market

The North African and Middle Eastern uprisings and revolutions over the past two and a half years have certainly contributed to a new boom in the global tear gas market. According to industry sources, the Middle East's internal state security market grew 18 per cent in 2012, reaching an estimated value of USD 5.8 billion.

Soon after the start of their revolution, Egyptian protesters and bloggers were posting pictures of tear gas canisters recovered from the streets of Cairo bearing the name of Combined Systems International (CSI) or 'Made in USA'. Other cartridges carried the markings of Defense Technology/Federal Laboratories (part of British arms and aerospace giant BAE Systems) and British defence contractor Chemring Defence (formerly known as PW Defence). Similar CSI canisters – a few inches long, blue and silver – had been found on Tunisia's streets during the first weeks of its own revolution the month before. Other Western-manufactured tear gas canisters and grenades have also been found in Syria.

Tear gas canisters and grenades recovered from the streets of Bahrain suggest that most came from the US, bearing the names of NonLethal Technologies and Defense Technology/Federal Laboratories. Other canisters spotted in Bahrain belonged to France's SAE Alsetex and Brazil's Condor Non-Lethal Technologies (which have recently also been used against anti-World Cup protesters in Brazil).

The US has now withheld licenses for tear gas exports to Bahrain, which means American tear gas still being used by the Bahraini authorities may have been stockpiled from before or obtained through a third country such as Saudi Arabia. The Brazilian government denies that any Brazilian tear gas has been directly sold to Bahrain, suggesting it may have been imported from another Gulf country, most probably the United Arab Emirates.

According to Bahrain Watch, security forces have recently started using unmarked tear gas canisters that release yellow smoke. This is presumably to obscure the manufacturer and country of origin, following the bad publicity that these have received. However, the group says the canisters “of unknown origin” appear to be manufactured by German/South African company Rheinmetall Denel Munitions, while the unmarked canisters are “almost certainly” from Korean company CNO Tech, which is known to have supplied “non-lethal arms” to Bahrain.

Most tear gas canisters and grenades recovered from Gezi Park, the streets of Istanbul and other Turkish cities where mass demonstrations have been taking place were also made by three US companies: NonLethal Technologies, Defense Technology and Combined Tactical Systems, as well as the Brazilian company Condor Non-Lethal Technologies. According to media reports, between 2000 and 2012 Turkey imported 628 tons of tear gas and pepper spray, worth USD 21 million, mainly from the US and Brazil.

Facing tear gas

Many observers are now calling for a total ban on the use of tear gas against demonstrators due to its lethal consequences, disputing claims by manufacturers and police forces that it is a benign 'non-lethal' or 'less lethal' crowd control method. The rhetoric asserting tear gas as 'non-lethal' (except when 'misused') operates within the reality of tear gas as a profitable commodity, manufactured and traded with state complicity, in the context of systematic state repression trying to stifle growing popular resentment and anger.

The misuse, or actual use, of tear gas in Bahrain and Turkey has prompted three members of the US Congress to propose new legislation on tear gas and other crowd control weapons “used to violate the human rights of protesters.” Other new initiatives include the Facing Tear Gas project. Spearheaded by the War Resisters League, the campaign brings together activists and organisations from across the US, Bahrain, Egypt, Greece, Canada, Chile and Palestine to “form a global initiative to ban tear gas.” These calls echo many others made over the years, for example 25 years ago when tear gas was used indiscriminately in South Korea against civilian protesters.

The use of tear gases such as CS gas in war is prohibited under the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention, but is permitted for use against civilians. The reasoning behind the prohibition is that it may trigger retaliation by the opponent with more toxic chemical weapons. Only five countries in the world have not signed the Convention, including Angola, Egypt, North Korea, Somalia and Syria. Under the UK Firearm Law, CS and other incapacitating sprays are classed as 'prohibited weapons', making it unlawful for a member of the public to possess them.

Demonstrators worldwide continue to invent novel ways to face tear gas and confront its intended use of making protest physically impossible. From drenching the canisters in sand, wrapping them in wet towels, or placing them in pre-prepared water butts, to home-made gas masks using plastic bottles and treatment with lemon, vinegar, soda and other widely available substances. People know that tear gas kills. Despite the 'clouds of death' they still take to the streets.