A police officer tries to restrain a protester during a clash outside the Legislative Council in the early morning of June 10, following a massive rally against the proposed extradition law. Photo: AFP
by Darren Mann
by Darren Mann

‘Less-lethal’ weapons such as rubber bullets and beanbag rounds can be deadly, too

  • The basic principles that govern their use, such as legality and proportionality, must be adhered to, and law enforcement bodies that use them – one among an array of crowd-control measures – must be held accountable for their actions
Darren Mann
The recent shooting of protesters by Hong Kong police using rubber bullets has proved controversial. Law enforcement officials have justified the use of force against violent demonstrators; but civil libertarians have decried what arguably amounts to police brutality. Under international human rights law, both sides have a point.

The right to lawful peaceful assembly is enshrined in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The UN Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials requires that this right be protected and upheld.

The measures that police may use to control demonstrators are prescribed in the 1990 UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials. Not to be confused with military “rules of engagement”, it is axiomatic that police have a proportionate right to act in self-defence (or in the defence of others), extending to lethal means when threat of serious harm is imminent.

The issuing of protective equipment to law enforcement officers (helmets, shields, gloves and stab-proof/ballistic vests), while providing the essential function of safety, also serves to elevate the threshold for their use of force.

The 1990 basic principles and subsequent UN Human Rights Council Resolutions 2014 (25/38) and 2018 (38/11) require law enforcement agencies to make non-lethal incapacitating weapons available and call for international protocols for their use, training, regulation and monitoring. These materials recognise that non-lethal weapons can cause serious injury, and that mistargeting of victims may occur.

Less-lethal weapons have a lower risk of causing death and serious injury than do conventional firearms which discharge metal-jacketed rounds, and the general principles for the use of less-than-lethal force by police are described in the 2018 Consultation Text for Geneva Guidelines on Less-Lethal Weapons and Related Equipment in Law Enforcement.

These general principles include legality (use of state-authorised weapons), precaution (police operations planned to minimise recourse to force), necessity to obtain a legitimate law enforcement objective, proportionality (matched to the threat, and calibrated use of the least force necessary) and distinction to minimise unintended harm to bystanders.

Less-lethal weapons can be targeted against individuals or groups. Their purpose is to temporarily incapacitate, deter and disperse.

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Kinetic impact projectiles (baton rounds) cause bodily deformation rather than penetration. As their name suggests, the principle is to deliver a thump equivalent to that of a handheld police baton or truncheon, at a distance. Originally formed from cut-off lengths of wooden broom handles, modern baton rounds are bullets made of rubber or plastic (while flexible baton rounds are #9 lead shot enclosed in a fabric bag).

These projectiles may be fired from conventional shotguns or specially manufactured “riot-control” weapons. They are designed to deliver a blow to cause a transient disablement. In actuality, the deceleration on hitting the target can amount to a force equivalent to the impact of a baseball travelling at over 100km/h.

Variously called rubber bullets and beanbags, the terminology is euphemistic – these projectiles are perfectly capable of causing the penetrating and blunt ballistic injury patterns characteristic of their full-metal jacketed counterparts, and death.

In a 2017 systematic review of the world literature of death, injury and disability from kinetic impact projectiles in crowd control settings, 1,984 victims were identified. There were 53 deaths (3 per cent), with head (brain) and neck trauma accounting for half of the fatalities, and torso (chest and abdominal major organs) injuries a quarter; penetrating wounds accounted for twice as many deaths as blunt mechanisms.

Of those who survived, 71 per cent sustained severe injuries requiring specialist medical attention, and alarmingly 300 people (16 per cent) were left with permanent disability. The eye is particularly vulnerable, and 85 per cent of ocular injuries resulted in permanent blindness. In contrast, only 0.01 per cent of limb impacts resulted in persistent disablement. (These findings underpin police protocols for the strict targeting of the lower limbs only.)

Risk of serious and fatal injury was associated with bullet type (metallic components), firing distance – a target closer than the designated safety range (and inherent inaccuracy further down-range with unintentional striking of non-violent protesters, innocent bystanders and journalists, instead of the targeted individuals).

Access to medical care, particularly delay, was related to morbidity; but also, worryingly, reluctance of the injured to seek hospital attention out of fear of police or political retribution.

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The Geneva consultation text establishes the responsibility of law enforcement bodies for state legal approval, procurement, testing and monitoring of less-lethal weapons. It calls for transparency in their use, and public reporting of their effects. Furthermore, hospitals receiving emergency casualties should (as part of major incident and disaster planning) be notified of the weapons used so that predicted ballistic injury patterns can inform clinical management.

When kinetic impact projectiles are used in crowd-control settings, individual law enforcement officers and commanders must be accountable for their actions. Clear identification markings for personnel, weapons and ammunition are key, and there is a good argument for all tactical units to be required to wear body cameras for subsequent after-action review.

There is a military saying that “while a full metal jacket round may have a name on it, rubber bullets are addressed to whom it may concern”. These so-called less-lethal weapons are deadly at short range and inaccurate down-range.

With the exception of the most violent antagonists, injuries sustained by peaceful protesters and innocent members of the public may amount to a violation of their human rights under established international covenants. Policing of assemblies is fraught with difficulty, but there are many measures available – it may be time to pass on the baton.

Darren Mann is a consultant military surgeon with combat ballistic trauma experience