Rise of the Machines: How Crowd-Control Weapons Became a Human Rights Disaster

Advocates say lack of regulation of their sale and use suppresses dissent while causing injuries and even deaths.

Riot police fire tear gas at supporters of Uganda’s leading opposition party, Forum for Democratic Change, as police and military forces disperse their procession with their presidential candidate to a campaign ground in Kampala on Feb. 15. (Photo: James Akena/Reuters)

Mar 12, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

From a playground in Kenya to a hospital in Argentina to the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, a largely unregulated, sometimes lethal, and frequently misused tool is growing in popularity among police forces around the world, according to a study released Thursday. The use of crowd-control weapons by law enforcement is proliferating as a means of suppressing protests, say human rights and civil liberties advocates, and average citizens who take to the streets are paying the price—sometimes with their lives.

“How these weapons are used is really important,” Rohini Haar, the report’s coauthor, told TakePart. “They can all cause real and severe injuries, even deaths.”

The report, published by Physicians for Human Rights and the International Network of Civil Liberties Organizations, takes a close look at the previously under-examined health effects associated with crowd-control weapons, as well as their impact on human rights.

The report’s authors studied the international use of plastic and rubber bullets, tear gas, water cannons, stun grenades, sound cannons, and directed energy weapons and found that a rise in their use is encroaching on people’s freedom of expression and assembly and putting protesters’ health at risk. The report also echoes the criticism of a militarized police presence, which has become an increasingly common sight in U.S. cities following the deaths of unarmed civilians at the hands of police in places such as Ferguson and Baltimore.

“There may be a role for crowd-control weapons in situations of total riot or when public safety is actually threatened, but those situations are few and far between,” said Haar. “Even if a person or a small group of people in a protest gets rowdy or violent, the use of weapons is not necessarily justified.”

The report highlights case studies in which the indiscriminate use of these weapons resulted in injury or death. Tear gas canisters fired into a crowd protesting the seizure of a playground by private developers in Kenya in 2015 resulted in a stampede that injured five children and one police officer. In Egypt that same year, 31-year-old activist Shaimaa' el-Sabbagh was killed after a police officer fired bird shot into a crowd. The smaller pellets used by police were supposed to be “less penetrative,” according to the report, but had a lethal effect when fired at close range. In 2011, another young activist was killed after being shot with rubber bullets at close range during a protest in Ficksburg, South Africa.

An investigation by TakePart in December found that rubber bullets were likely a factor in the deaths of 15 would-be immigrants to Spain at the hands of border patrol officers in February 2014 in what has become known as the Tarajal incident.

In the U.S., the American Civil Liberties Union is calling into question police forces’ frequent use of long-range acoustic devices at protests. At the G-20 Summit in 2009, held in Pittsburgh, an LRAD emitted a “piercing sound for a number of minutes” at a crowd without warning, “causing intense pain as fluid discharged” from the ears of a participant, Karen Piper. Piper then became nauseated and dizzy. The use of LRADs has since increased across the U.S., according to the report, from Occupy Wall Street in New York City to demonstrations in Ferguson following the death of Michael Brown.

One of the biggest problems with the use of these weapons is their lack of regulation and the lack of standards applied to the industry that manufactures and sells them. “There is such limited regulation of the manufacture, sale, and trade of these weapons, both internationally and nationally,” said Haar. “Companies make profits from selling the newer, better products, but when that comes at the expense of targeting a primarily unarmed civilian population with longer-lasting, more potent, more dangerous weapons, it’s wrong.”

On Thursday, the report was presented to the United Nations Human Rights Council by the Special Rapporteurs on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions. During the briefing, the U.N. experts offered recommendations to protect the safety and rights of demonstrators and bystanders during protests.

“Assemblies can play a vital role in the protection and fulfillment of human rights,” said the U.N. experts in a statement. “They should not be viewed or treated as a threat but rather as a means of dialogue in which the state should engage.”