New report documents how crowd-control weapons impact health and human rights

Published by Brent Patterson on

A new report titled Lethal in Disguise 2: How Crowd-Control Weapons Impact Health and Human Rights documents the dangers of these weapons used by security forces around the world, including in Colombia.

It calls on governments to respect human rights commitments and to end impunity when violations are committed by state forces during protests.

The report was produced by the Geneva-based International Network of Civil Liberties Organizations (INCLO) and the New York-based Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) in collaboration with the Manchester-based Omega Research Foundation.

It begins: “Public protests have surged across the world in recent years, often led by grassroots movements seeking to challenge social and economic injustices, express discontent and demand transformative change from their governments. …Law enforcement and security forces have frequently responded to these protests with excessive force and violence that fundamentally undermine the rights to free expression and assembly.”

The report looks at different categories of crowd-control weapons (CCWs) including kinetic impact projectiles (rubber bullets), chemical irritants (tear gas and pepper spray), water cannons (with coloured dyes, chemical irritants and malodorants).

Colombia

The report notes:

– “In Colombia, the use of impact projectiles [KIPs] during the protests of the spring of 2021 resulted in more than one hundred ocular injuries.” (page 45)

– Dilan Cruz was killed by a bean bag fired from a 12-gauge shotgun by an ESMAD police officer (case study, pages 52-53)

Photo: The mother of Dilan Cruz (page 53). Photo by Ebastian Delgado C./ Shutterstock.

– “In Colombia, the use of the US-made ‘venom’ launchers, which can deploy dozens of grenades at once from stations mounted on vehicles, shields or static installations, led to the rapid diffusion of massive quantities of chemical irritants at protests across the country in 2021.” (page 67)

– “There is no evidence that Venom has been permanently retired from its use in Colombian law enforcement. Use of military-designed weapons, such as Venom, to police protests is indicative of a worrying trend towards violently suppressing the right to protest and freedom of expression.” (case study, pages 138-141)

Recommendations

Among its 67 recommendations (pages 154-165):

7- “International, regional and national controls should be adopted on the trade in CCWs and equipment. These should prohibit the trade in inherently abusive weapons and equipment and control the trade in CCWs that are misused to ensure that they are not used in human rights abuses.”

36-  “Kinetic impact projectiles (KIPs) can cause serious injuries, permanent disability, and death. Severe injuries are more likely when KIPs are fired at close range. When launched from afar, these weapons are often inaccurate and can strike vulnerable body parts or bystanders. Therefore, the medical evidence in this report underscores that KIPs should never be fired indiscriminately into groups and are, in general, an inappropriate weapon in any protest context.”

41- “Chemical irritants, when deployed using canisters or grenades, are inherently indiscriminate by nature, cause severe pain and injuries and frequently escalate tensions. Therefore, extreme caution must be used before and during deployment that considers the presence of bystanders and the existence of areas of egress and airflow to minimise any risk of overexposure due to the serious risk of injury.”

Photo: ESMAD riot police attack a protest with tear gas and stun grenades in Pasto, Narino on May 26, 2021. Photo by Camilo Erasso/ Long Visual Press/ Universal Images (page 139).

42-  “Chemical irritants that should be expressly prohibited in the context of protests due to the risk of death and serious injury include launchers that fire multiple chemical irritant canisters, such as the Venom system.”

44- “The use of water cannons against individuals at short ranges should be prohibited, owing to the risk of injury from the water jet itself or from injuries due to slips, trips, and falls secondary to the impact of a water cannon.”

65- “All deaths, injuries and suspected misuses of CCWs should be thoroughly investigated by a body independent of the implicated officials, with a view to establishing responsibilities and accountability of the officials involved, including the various levels of the command structure in charge during the incident. Where there is evidence of unlawful conduct, commanders and responsible officers should face administrative disciplinary measures and/or criminal prosecution, as appropriate.”

66- “Police officers under investigation for the misuse of CCWs or for any other abuse of force should be removed from active frontline duty or suspended until their case is resolved.”

The full 174-page report can be read at Lethal in Disguise 2: How Crowd-Control Weapons Impact Health and Human Rights.

Further reading: Canada must suspend weapons exports to Colombia (Amnesty International, June 28, 2021); 228 academics call on Canada to prohibit any future sale of weapons or light-armoured vehicles to Colombia (June 8, 2021) and PBI-Colombia accompanies NOMADESC and CSPP as they seek justice for the victims of police violence during the national strike (March 21, 2023).

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