Riot Control Agents: The usage and implications of suppressing riots with lethal weapons

Health Care Comments Off

The World Medical Association (WMA) during its recent meeting held in Moscow urged all the governments to consider the fatal results that might occur post the usage of chemical agents often used to control riots. Governments across the world should understand that stockpiling and usage of such agents be done in a manner, which minimizes the chances of morbidity and mortality.

History has been a witness to political uprisings or riots in many parts of the world, some more severe than the other. The outcomes of these political and social feuds are an innumerable casualties, destruction and a simmering distrust or conflict between the two parties. In the past, various means were used for law enforcement in the event of such uprisings or riots. The use of poison gas during the First World War is one such example. This ultimately led to a call from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in February 1918 for the cessation of its use. This led to the Geneva Protocol of 1925, the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention of 1972 (BTWC) and the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993 (CWC).

• These conventions prohibit the development, production and stockpiling of chemical weapons in addition to their usage in warfare and call for measures to decommission or destroy existing stores

• The CWC allows the use of specific chemicals in domestic law enforcement including riot control situations, which means that governments might hold stockpiles of certain agents and use only in domestic or national jurisdictions

• Although there is academic and military interest in what is often called non-lethal weapons, the incidence of morbidity and mortality caused by weapons are not criteria used in prohibition. A tiered approach based on degrees of lethality of specific weapons is contrary to the ethos of both conventions

• The use of riot control agents in situations of widespread public unrest and political or other uprisings may give rise to specific medical, legal and ethical challenges, despite not being in conflict with the principles of CWC

Riot control agents are still being used despite the long-standing concern regarding their safety and associated health hazards.

These riot control agents are not expected to directly cause any injuries or deaths. But they might impact the population based on determinants of age and health.

Release of chemical agents such as tear gas in a small enclosed space exposes individuals to concentrations far higher than those expected in normal deployment in riot situations, causing higher levels of serious morbidity and potentially death.

Their misuse can cause serious harm to the demonstrators and even death. Using chemical weapons for oppressing non-violent peaceful demonstrations, may lead to a breach of the human rights of the individuals concerned, in particular the right to life (Article 3), the right to freedom of expression (Article 19) and of peaceful assembly (Article 20) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

WMA recommendations

• The decision of deploying such riot control agents be taken carefully as their inappropriate use endangers the lives of those targeted and exposes people around, amounting to a potential breach of human rights standards, in particular the right to life, the right to freedom of expression and of peaceful assembly as stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

• Riot control agents, if used, should be done in a manner designed to minimize the risk of serious harm to individuals, and to prohibit its use in the presence of vulnerable populations, such as children, older people or pregnant women.

• The riot control agents should never be used in enclosed spaces where chemical concentrations may reach dangerous levels, and where people cannot move away from areas with high concentrations of the agent.

• Police and other security forces should be trained in the safe and legal use of riot control agents to minimize the risk of harm when they are deployed such as rapid evacuation of any individual who is apparently suffering from a high level of exposure, not aiming people, and avoiding excessive use of the agent.

• States should penalize individuals who misuse riot control agents and who deliberately endanger human life and safety by using the agents.

• The governments should provide for unrestricted and protected access of healthcare personnel to allow them to fulfill their duty of attending to the injured as outlined in the “WMA Declaration on the protection of healthcare workers in situations of violence.”

• Above all, their use in any circumstances should be refrained, considering risks to health and life associated with the use of such riot control agents.