A year ago today, in a chaotic response to a largely peaceful demonstration, Hong Kong police fired volleys of tear gas in and around the CITIC Tower as trapped protesters broke into the building to escape the toxic fumes. In the following months, police fired tens of thousands of tear gas canisters at protesters, in a futile effort to quash the demonstrations.
Hong Kong was only the most visible example of the widespread misuse of tear gas which has escalated across the world. Even before the recent rise in its use in in cities across the USA, the past year has seen demonstrations in dozens of cities in all regions of the world being doused in what are euphemistically called “chemical irritants”.
Amnesty International has been researching this phenomenon, primarily through videos posted to social media platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. Using open source investigation methods, the organization verified close to 500 videos of around 80 events in 22 countries and territories where tear gas has been misused, confirming the location, date, and validity of events. Alongside interviews with protesters themselves, the analysis exposes a disturbing global trend of widespread, unlawful tear gas use.
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. Police have fired canisters directly at individuals, leading to fatalities, as well as from trucks, jeeps and drones whizzing by at high speeds. On the receiving end have been climate protesters, high school students, medical staff, journalists, migrants and other human rights defenders, such as members of the Bring Back Our Girls movement in Nigeria.
A Sudanese doctor in Omdurman, outside Khartoum, described how tear gas was fired inside a hospital emergency room, injuring 11. Protesters in Abuja told Amnesty International that the types of tear gas used on peaceful protests led to many of them collapsing and having to be taken to hospital; they noticed that exposure to a chemical agent used in water cannon was burning holes in their banners and clothing. While in Caracas, several videos show police firing canisters directly at people, causing severe injury and at least one death.
The impact of tear gas can be so severe that Amnesty International has joined Nils Melzer, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, in concluding that in certain situations it amounts to torture or other ill-treatment.Amnesty International
The impact of tear gas can be so severe that Amnesty International has joined Nils Melzer, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, in concluding that in certain situations it amounts to torture or other ill-treatment.
Given the widespread abuse and clear public health impact of tear gas, you would expect these weapons to be tightly regulated, with agreed standards on their chemical composition, design, export and use – right?
Think again. Tear gas is in a regulatory grey zone, traded relatively freely across the world. Canisters come in all shapes and sizes, containing different types and amounts of toxic chemicals, and are launched from a wide variety of devices, including multi-barrel launchers designed to fire dozens of canisters simultaneously. In many cases it is difficult to even know what precise chemical cocktail is inside a tear gas canister, and whether or how its safety has been tested prior to sale.
Tear gas is manufactured around the world by largely unregulated companies – some are small businesses with scant trade data and no published policies on ethics or human rights. Some countries do in theory apply risk assessments to tear gas exports, but wave through all but the most obviously controversial exports.
Different police forces adopt different rules of engagement, many falling well short of UN standards and guidance. If they actually followed best practice, they would rarely use tear gas. Tear gas should only be used to disperse a crowd in situations of more generalized violence, and only when all other means have failed. It may not be used in a confined space or where exit routes are blocked. And canisters must never be fired directly at individuals, which risks severe, life-changing injury or death.
Part of the reason for this regulatory ambiguity is that tear gas is an awkward orphan of efforts to control chemical weapons and arms more generally. Even though explicitly prohibited for use “as a method of warfare” by the Chemical Weapons Convention, riot control agents (including tear gas) are permitted for use in law enforcement “as long as the types and quantities are consistent with such purposes”. However, since the Convention does not define “law enforcement” nor give any guidance on appropriate “types” and “quantities”, it is left to individual states to interpret it as they see fit. The upshot is a patchwork of often poorly applied national control regimes.
But amid the regulatory disarray, there is a glimmer of hope. The UN has begun consulting on international measures to control the trade in goods that could be used for torture and other ill-treatment. It is vital that riot control agents, including tear gas, are covered in this framework. While international regulation is discussed, states must impose their own restrictions, barring the trade in tear gas where there are clear human rights risks, and strictly controlling its use at home.
As Hong Kong braces itself for a fresh wave of protests, and the Hong Kong Police Force prepares new crackdowns, international regulation of tear gas – its composition, manufacture, trade and use – is more vital than ever. If we are to put an end to the abuses seen in Hong Kong and around the world, tear gas needs to be addressed for what is it is: a potentially dangerous – even lethal – weapon which is being recklessly traded and deployed across the world.
Ariela Levy is on the Crisis Evidence Lab at Amnesty International.
Patrick Wilcken is a researcher on Arms Control, Security & Human Rights at Amnesty International
NOTE: This originally appeared in South China Morning Post.