It’s time to take away the tear gas

By Nate Smith, Military, Security and Police Coordination Group

What if we had thoroughly-investigated and verified documentation of police abuse of a dangerous chemical weapon available online for the world to see?

In the last few weeks the world has watched in horror as law enforcement officers in cities and towns across America brutalize peaceful protestors. The tactics and weapons are familiar to those who bore witness to events in Baltimore in 2015, Ferguson in 2014, Los Angeles in 1992 or 1965, and numerous other incidents: batons, rubber bullets, riot gear, kettling (a practice in which crowds are forced into a small area with no outlet), and tear gas. What makes this last item different from the others? It’s banned internationally from use in armed conflict under the Geneva Protocol. Why? Because tear gas is exceptionally dangerous. Used in an enclosed space, it can asphyxiate and kill quickly. Even when used outdoors, it causes irritation and inflammation of the lungs and can be life-threatening for vulnerable people such as those with asthma — that group alone is over 25m Americans.

The legitimate uses for tear gas are few and far between. Amnesty International recommends that it be used to the minimum extent necessary in cases of widespread violence that cannot be addressed by dealing with violent individuals only, and only for the purpose of dispersing the crowd. It should only be used after warnings in situations where there are opportunities for crowds to disperse safely (i.e. adequate time allowed for people to move, safe exit points, and safe spaces to exit to); it should never be fired directly at individuals or used in confined spaces.

Let’s contrast these criteria with descriptions we’ve seen from recent protests. In Richmond VA on June 1st, police used tear gas on peaceful demonstrators who were not breaking the citywide curfew. On the same day in Philadelphia, police fired tear gas at protesters who were surrounded by police units and fences and had no place to disperse to — they continued to fire tear gas canisters as demonstrators were attempting to flee. These incidents are just two examples of many in which law enforcement authorities in the U.S. have shown themselves to be untrustworthy, unprofessional and dangerous with tear gas in their hands.

But these abuses don’t happen only in the U.S. As a new Amnesty International project shows, security forces in a number of countries have misused tear gas to intimidate peaceful protestors and silence dissent. And when people find spent canisters on the ground in the aftermath? They’re often labeled “Made in the USA” — a grim and embarrassing legacy for a country founded in part on the importance of free speech. The project — Tear Gas, an Investigation — is a regularly-updated online archive of verified tear gas abuses around the world. It shows with the rigorous investigative backing of Amnesty International’s Citizen Evidence Lab what millions of peaceful protesters already know from their own lived experience: many law enforcement authorities cannot be trusted with this dangerous weapon. Share this valuable data source with anyone who cares about stopping police from using chemical weapons to suppress free speech, and let’s fight back.

So what should be done about it? Here’s what we’re working for:

  • Strict limits on use. Our recommended guidelines on use provide for circumstances that occur very rarely, and do not remotely resemble the protests we have all witnessed in the U.S. the last few weeks.
  • Controls on trade. Governments must immediately suspend the export of tear gas and other crowd control equipment to law enforcement and other end users where there is credible evidence that it is being misused or is likely to be misused for serious human rights violations by those end users.
  • Joining forces. Amnesty International is collaborating extensively with the Omega Research Foundation to conduct an international lobbying campaign to put in place global restrictions on the trade in tear gas, among other items often used for repression and torture.

Change begins with knowledge. Spread the word.

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