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As Tear Gas Injures More Than 119,000 People, Researchers Call for Crowd-Control Weapons Regulations: Report

The most comprehensive study on crowd-control weapons to date documents severe harms to health and human rights resulting from protest abuses by law enforcement

More than 119,000 people have been injured by tear gas and other chemical irritants during protests around the world since 2015, while at least 2,190 people have been injured by rubber bullets and other types of kinetic impact projectiles, according to a new investigation published today by Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) and the International Network of Civil Liberties Organizations (INCLO), in collaboration with the Omega Research Foundation.

Lethal in Disguise 2: How Crowd-Control Weapons Impact Health and Human Rights is the most comprehensive study on crowd-control weapons to date. The study breaks ground with new evidence about the damage to health and to the rights of assembly, association, and free expression caused by these weapons. The report details the weapon profile, mechanism of action, health effects, and what has changed since 2016 for the most frequently used crowd-control weapons on the market. These include chemical irritants like tear gas and pepper spray; kinetic impact projectiles like rubber bullets; other crowd-control weapons like water cannons, disorientation devices, batons, and acoustic weapons; and new and emerging frontiers in crowd-control weapons like drones and electronic conduction devices.

From Washington to Santiago, Belarus to Hong Kong, protest movements have become increasingly common in recent years – as have violent crackdowns by governments and security forces. The unnecessary, excessive, and disproportionate use of force – including crowd-control weapons – often serves not to disperse crowds and quell dissent but rather escalates conflict. The new report documents how thousands of people worldwide have been seriously injured or killed in recent years by these largely unregulated weapons, as well as the chilling effect of this violence on millions more.

“Crowd-control weapons maim and kill. Even as someone who has studied crowd-control weapons and their impacts for the past decade, I continue to be stunned by the total absence of data or transparency from the manufacturers of these weapons, who operate and profit with total impunity,” said Rohini Haar, MD, MPH, lead report author, emergency physician, and medical advisor at Physicians for Human Rights. “Despite how often they are used in protests around the world and the thousands of injuries and deaths as a result, there are next to no meaningful regulations or reporting requirements for law enforcement agencies on crowd-control weapons in the vast majority of countries.”

“It is past time that governments ban rubber bullets in all crowd-control settings – kinetic impact projectiles can never be used safely in protest environments. Additionally, governments must bring crowd-control weapons out of the shadows and mandate public reporting on their use and accountability for their misuse,” added Dr. Haar.

The report is informed by new systematic reviews of peer-reviewed medical literature, interviews, desk research, and case study analysis. The statistics on deaths and injuries from crowd-control weapons are bare minimum estimates, likely undercounting the true tolls of crowd-control weapons as their uses and resulting harms often go unreported and are not included in the medical literature.

The report is accompanied by a new web platform, The Lethal in Disguise Project, which provides an array of multimedia resources, translations of the report, and guides for policymakers, health professionals, researchers, protestors, and the public. The website is a living library of tools, case studies and news for users to keep up to date on violations committed with crowd-control weapons and the worldwide advocacy efforts to protect the right to protest. 

Today’s report is a follow-up to the landmark report Lethal in Disguise, published by PHR and INCLO in 2016, and related peer-reviewed medical journal studies. Since then, the nature, scale, and documentation of protests – and the weapons used – have evolved considerably. Over the past eight years, crowd-control weapons’ manufacturing, marketing, and use have proliferated, resulting in more injuries and less accountability for their harm. In many countries, there is still a lack of documentation, reporting, and investigation of injuries. Meaningful accountability for crowd-control weapons abuses remains rare.

In March 2023 alone, crowd-control weapons have reportedly been deployed against protestors in Bangladesh, Ethiopia, France, Georgia, Greece, Israel/Occupied Palestinian Territories, Italy, Kenya, Mozambique, Pakistan, Peru, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Türkiye, and the United States, among other countries.

“The repression of demonstrations remains as global as protest itself,” said Lucila Santos, INCLO’s program coordinator. “In addition to the growing violent use of crowd control weapons, since 2016 we have seen new technologies deployed by governments with next to no accountability or oversight whatsoever.”

“Since we published Lethal in Disguise 1, the progress in international standards and awareness about the lethality of these weapons is meaningful but insufficient. The reality on the ground is that the number of people who are injured and killed in protests by authorities is soaring. We hope this report will push governments to ban many crowd control weapons proven to be inaccurate and dangerous, and tighten regulations all around.”

Based on these new findings, researchers are calling for:

  • Bans of rubber bullets (kinetic impact projectiles) in all crowd-control settings, especially of multi-projectile kinetic impact projectiles, which are inherently indiscriminate and projectiles with metal components
  • Tighter restrictions on weapons that may be used indiscriminately and harm peaceful civilians without cause, such as tear gas, acoustic weapons, water cannons, batons, and others 
  • Prohibition of weapons that result in collective punishment, like putting dyes or malodorants in water cannons
  • Prohibition of weapons that cause excessive harm in protest settings, including electric conduction weapons, stun grenades, and bird-shot pellets 
  • Regulation of crowd-control weapons’ design, manufacture, trade, and use
  • Public reporting on all uses and accountability for misuse of crowd-control weapons

The report offers detailed recommendations and new guidance on pre-deployment of crowd-control weapons, including design, trade, testing, legal review, and procurement; on the use of force and deployment of various types of crowd-control weapons; and on post-deployment actions, including medical assistance to the injured and accountability for abuses. The report provides an overview of the international laws and standards around use of force and crowd-control weapons, as well as insights from past implementation of these laws and experiences in the field.

16 case studies across 13 countries investigate some of the most notorious crowd-control weapons abuses of recent years, such as widespread police use of rubber bullets against Black Lives Matter demonstrators in the United States; the tear gas used by police at an Indonesian football stadium that resulted in 135 deaths; and the blinding and eye injuries sustained by Chilean protesters amid social protests. Other case studies highlight incidents that did not receive global attention but reflect the profound harms caused by crowd-control weapons: a baby’s death from batons during a police operation in Kenya; the killing of an Indigenous activist by tear gas canister in the Ecuadorian Amazon; and the first-ever use of drone-deployed crowd-control weapons, which have been used by Israeli security forces against protestors in Gaza.

In South Africa, less lethal weapons are often targeted against community leaders to stifle protest and create a chilling effect on demonstrators. 

“The use of rubber bullets in South Africa is so pervasive that we’ve become desensitized to the actual harms of less lethal weapons, how dangerous they are and how indiscriminately they’re fired,” said Devon Turner, attorney at Legal Resources Centre (LRC), an INCLO member organization in South Africa.

For more information, tools, and resources on crowd-control weapons and the right to protest, visit the new web platform, The Lethal in Disguise Project.

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a New York-based advocacy organization that uses science and medicine to prevent mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. Learn more here.

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