End the abuse of tear gas for the sake of peaceful protesters in Hong Kong, the US and everywhere else
- The misuse of tear gas at protests in Hong Kong and in the US after George Floyd’s death is part of a worrying trend that is escalating across the globe
- As the UN looks to control goods that could be used for torture or other ill-treatment, it is vital that tear gas is included, while states must also impose their own curbs
Alongside interviews with protesters, the analysis exposes a disturbing global trend of widespread, unlawful tear gas use.
A Sudanese doctor in Omdurman, outside Khartoum, described how tear gas was fired inside a hospital accident and emergency department, injuring 11.
Protesters in Abuja told Amnesty International that the types of tear gas used on peaceful protests led to many collapsing and having to be taken to hospital; they noticed that exposure to a chemical agent used in water cannons was burning holes in their banners and clothing.
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 United Nations 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.
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.
Tear gas fired as thousands protest Beijing’s planned national security law for Hong Kong
Tear gas should only be used to disperse a crowd in situations of more generalised 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, as that risks severe, life-changing injury or death.
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.
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 for a fresh wave of protests, and the police force prepares for 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, where Patrick Wilcken is a researcher on arms control, security and human rights