Empty tear gas canisters. Credit: Sunday Times
  • by Thalif Deen (United Nations)
  • Interpress service

If fighter jets are fair game and cannot be used to violate human rights, the same cannot be said for “weapons of mass control” (WMC), including water cannons, tear gas grenades, pepper spray and rubber bullets – which are mostly used against civilian protesters.

But these weapons, contrary to popular belief, are not only the sole monopolies of authoritarian regimes in Asia, the Middle East, and South and Central America, but are also used by Western democracies such as the United States, Spain, and France—along with Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Gaza, Guinea, Hong Kong, Iran, Iraq, Peru, Sudan, Tunisia and Venezuela.

A Reuters report published in October 2019 on the mass protests in Hong Kong said the protests erupted over planned legislation that would have allowed extraditions from Hong Kong to mainland China.

The police reportedly fired over 6,000 rounds of tear gas, about 2,400 rubber bullets, about 700 mushroom grenades and over 500 rounds of beans.

the report, My eye explodedpublished jointly with the Omega Research Foundation, is based on research in more than 30 countries over the past five years.

It documents “how thousands of protesters and bystanders have been maimed and dozens killed by the often reckless and disproportionate use of less lethal law enforcement weapons, including kinetic impact projectiles (KIPs), such as rubber bullets, as well as the firing of rubberized pellets, and tear gas grenades aimed and fired directly against protesters”.

“We believe that legally binding global controls on the manufacture and trade of less lethal weapons, including KIPs, together with effective guidelines on the use of force are urgent to combat an escalating cycle of abuse,” said Patrick Wilcken, Amnesty International’s military researcher, security and police matters.

Amnesty International and the Omega Research Foundation are among 30 organizations calling for one The UN-backed Torture Free Trade Agreement to ban the manufacture and trade of inherently offensive IEDs and other law enforcement weapons, and to introduce human rights-based trade controls on the supply of other law enforcement equipment, including rubber and plastic bullets.


Dr Michael Crowley, research associate at the Omega Research Foundation, said a torture free trade agreement would ban all production and trade in existing weapons and equipment for law enforcement that are inherently abusive.

These include inherently dangerous or inaccurate single KIPs, rubberized metal bullets, rubberized buckshot, and multi-projectile ammunition that have resulted in blinding, other serious injuries, and deaths worldwide.”

The Amnesty report says these weapons have led to permanent disability in hundreds of cases and many deaths.

There has been an alarming increase in eye injuries, including ruptured eyeballs, retinal detachments and complete vision loss, as well as bone and skull fractures, brain injuries, ruptured internal organs and bleeding, punctured hearts and lungs from broken ribs, genital injuries and psychological trauma.

A recent report in the Sri Lanka Sunday Times said that dissidents in Sri Lanka are often met with tear gas and water cannons fired by the Sri Lankan police. Mass demonstrations that culminated in a protest site, as a result of an economic and political crisis last year, were often quelled with police tear gas and water cannon blasts.

Some protesters have died while some deaths were attributed to complications following tear gas attacks. Police in Sri Lanka are now accused of abusing the use of the riot control agent. Lawyers have also filed complaints with human rights authorities, the police and courts.

Sri Lankans who have been exposed to tear gas claim to have suffered from prolonged coughing, phlegm, throat irritation and in some cases asthma. Between March and July 2022, the police had fired more than 6,700 tear gas canisters.

Meanwhile, according to an evaluation by Chile’s National Human Rights Institute, police actions during protests that began in October 2019 resulted in more than 440 eye injuries, with over 30 cases of eye loss or rupture.

At least 53 people died from projectiles fired by security forces, according to a peer-reviewed study based on medical literature between 1990 and June 2017. It also concluded that 300 of the 1,984 people injured suffered permanent disability. The actual numbers are likely to be much higher, according to the report.

Since then, the availability, variety and deployment of KIPs has escalated globally, furthering the militarization of protest policing.

The Amnesty report notes that national guidance on the use of KIP rarely meets international standards on the use of force, which state that their deployment is limited to situations of last resort when violent individuals pose an imminent threat of harm to persons. Police forces regularly flout the regulations with impunity.

In the United States, according to the report, the use of rubber bullets to suppress peaceful protests has become increasingly common.

A protester hit in the face in Minneapolis, Minnesota on May 31, 2020, told Amnesty International: “My eye exploded from the impact of the rubber bullet and my nose moved from where it should be under the other eye. The first night I was in the hospital they collected pieced my eye together and sewed it back together. Then they moved my nose back to where it should be and reshaped it. They put in a prosthetic eye – so I can only see out of my right eye now.”

In Spain, the use of large, naturally flawed rubber KIPs the size of tennis balls has finally led to one death from head trauma and 24 serious injuries, including 11 cases of serious eye damage, according to Stop Balas de Goma, a campaign group.

In France, a medical review of 21 patients with facial and eye injuries caused by rubber bullets noted serious injuries including bone fragmentation, fractures and lacerations resulting in blindness.

IPS UN agency report

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© Inter Press Service (2023) — All rights reservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service