Tear Gas: The Remedy for Control or The Weapon Aimed at Health and Democracy?

By Yirah Shih

In the midst of violence and aggression during WWI, the French attempted an alternative line of defence: the employment of tear gas grenades. This endeavour instigated the development and militarisation of chemical agents (Fitzgerald, 2008). The extensive exploitation of chemical weapons during wars caused immense terror, yet authorities saw its potential in local crowd control  (Daft, 2020). Following negotiations, the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention was established, calling upon the ban of tear gas during war, whilst determining its use by law enforcements for domestic riot control purposes as lawful exceptions; in other words, the use of tear gas as riot control agents was legalised (Practice Relating to Rule 75. Riot Control Agents.).

In recent years, protests around the world have been made familiar to the white mists of tear gas. This ‘less-lethal’ incapacitant intends to cause only transient effects, with no anticipation for mortality. Subsequent to exposure, individuals exhibit symptoms of immediate dermal and ocular irritations including itching, stinging, blistering and burning sensation. If inhaled, further effects on the respiratory tract result in coughing, choking, salivation and tightness of chest (Rothenberg et al., 2016). However, the surging numbers of people suffering from serious injuries and permanent disabilities give the impression of an underestimation of prospective public health implications brought about by tear gas, not to mention its infringement of human rights. As a consequence of prolonged and excessive exposure to tear gas, symptoms of greater severity are observed, such as globe ruptures and blindness, limb amputations, persistent asthma symptoms, post-traumatic stress disorder and even death (Haar et al., 2017; Levy & Wilcken, 2020).

Law enforcements around the globe are convinced that tear gas is an invaluable antidote against unlawful assemblies (F. T. Fraunfelder, 2000). Police defended that their actions were necessary in restoring stability, claiming that the possible detrimental effects of tear gas serve its purpose of dispersing demonstrators and deterring protests and riots (Shaila Dewan & Mike Baker, 2020). Yet, critics are unconvinced by officers’ reasonings in numerous circumstances, arguing that their irrational decisions have led to the distressing trend of widespread misuse of tear gas (Amnesty, n.d.; Williams, Fiorante & Wong, 2020).

The intentions behind the use of tear gas are deemed questionable. In Bangkok, peaceful demonstrations were met with firings of tear gas, inflicting harm on nonviolent protests and many uninvolved (Anon., 2020c). Refugees and displaced individuals, including many children, in Calais, were sprayed with tear gas despite posing no threat (Bulman, 2017). The chemical agent seeped into homes in Philadelphia following its dispersion within neighbourhoods, contaminating clothes, food and many more items (Song, 2020). These reckless launches of tear gas disregarded its primary aim against violent crowds. Instead, they have deprived freedom of assembly and have resulted in unnecessary exposures of tear gas, amplifying health effects on individuals. In particular, susceptible populations in various mentioned instances, such as the unaccompanied minors in former Calais Jungle, and elderlies and patients suffering from chronic respiratory conditions resident in Philadelphia, are disproportionate risks to the effects of tear gas (Amnesty, n.d.).

Ranging from hospitals to tube stations, the firing of tear gas in confined and unventilated spaces raised public concerns. The United Nations Human Rights Guidance on Less-Lethal Weapons in Law Enforcement (UNHR LLW Guidance) stipulated the prohibition of employing tear gas in enclosed spaces owing to the potentially lethal implications from asphyxiation (Guidance on Less-Lethal Weapons in Law Enforcement. 2020). Nevertheless, in Omdurman, panic and chaos erupted as government forces shot tear gas inside hospitals (Anon., 2019b); in Hong Kong, Kwai Fong tube station was flooded with the irritant as police deployed multiple barrages without prior warnings (Hu & Kine, 2019). The indiscriminate nature of the riot control agent aggravates ramifications of both incidents — it harms everyone regardless of whether they are protestors or bystanders, patients or commuters. Notably, the lack of adequate protective gear often makes non-protestors more vulnerable to such chemicals (Williams, Fiorante & Wong, 2020).

Excessive quantities and more powerful variations of tear gas used by authorities have heightened discussions, especially regarding the associated fatal exacerbations of health complications (Williams, Fiorante & Wong, 2020). The UNHR LLW Guidance specified avoidance of repeated or prolonged exposure to the chemical agent (Human rights watch, 2020), yet investigations revealed the compiled cases of its unlawful use. In Beirut, journalists counted the launching of 30 canisters of tear gas within a single minute, as security forces fired simultaneously (Anon., 2019a). During the Arab Spring in the 2010s, Egyptian military junta employed a stronger form of conventional tear gas, causing multiple incidences of convulsions and unconsciousness amidst individuals exposed (Beaumont & Domokos, 2011). Direct firings of tear gas aimed at individuals in Chile (Jenner, 2019), Ecuador (Anon., 2020a) and Caracas (Anon., 2020b) further intensified debates, as such projectiles could lead to serious injuries or even death from impact trauma (Human rights watch, 2020).

Disputes concerning the abuse of tear gas point at the ineffectiveness of guidelines and policies that are currently in place. Studies show that business interests of tear gas suppliers, such as Condor, and government and military priorities on crowd control appear to outweigh medical and human rights considerations when it comes to regulating the use of tear gas (Feigenbaum, 2015). Apprehension adds up as legal bindings of UNHR declarations depend on its ratification by domestic jurisdictions (Willmott-Harrop, 2001). It is therefore difficult to uphold law enforcements accountable for their violations of UNHR LLW Guidance and fundamental human rights (Williams, Fiorante & Wong, 2020). In addition, the ambiguities on legislations with regards to tear gas, including the lack of specifics on necessity and proportionality along with insufficient potent consequences and sanctions, allows diversified interpretations and limits disincentive to use the riot control agent respectively, hence hindering their effectiveness (Levy & Wilcken, 2020).

So, what is tear gas for? The question often lies not with ‘whether tear gas can be used’, but instead with ‘to what extent can they be used?’. As the irritant transforms from military munitions to riot control agents, the answer remains yet to be determined by subjective interpretations. The contrasting views of officers and demonstrators give different perspectives of considerations in social stability, health risks and democracy. Further legislations and investigations on tear gas manufacturing and usage would have to be established, in order to reset the imbalance between its function in crowd control, its related health concerns and the protection of basic human rights.


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