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Five years ago, 33-year-old activist Andries Tatane joined thousands of others on a peaceful protest against poor public services in Ficksburg, South Africa. A few hours later he was dead, after being blasted by police water cannon, beaten by batons and shot by rubber bullets. Despite witness testimony and video footage, seven police officers were acquitted of his murder.
Tatane was a victim of crowd-control weapons (CCWs): ‘non-lethal’ or ‘less lethal’ weaponry developed for the military but used by police against civilians — whether it’s rubber bullets in South Africa, tear gas in Tahrir Square in Egypt or Skunk spray in Gaza.
Last month, the NGO Physicians for Human Rights released a report documenting the growing use and health impacts of CCWs. [1] I rang the coauthor, Rohini Haar, to talk about what the findings suggest about disability.
There is evidence of all CCWs causing permanent damage, from sound cannon causing deafness to water cannon causing blindness, she tells me. “All have the potential for causing permanent disability.”

The report lists nearly 2,000 people who suffered injuries, of whom 53 died and 294 
were left with disabilities

It is based on official medical reports from the past 25 years across 12 countries. “We wanted to make sure that every case we reported on was real,” Haar explains, but the trade-off is that we are “grossly underestimating the number of injuries”.

Rohini Haar talks to Imogen Mathers about the health impacts of crowd-control weapons, and the need for more research, monitoring and control of weapon use. Click here to download.
How [CCWs] are used is as important as what exactly is used,” Haar adds. For example, ‘kinetic impact projectiles’, such as rubber-coated metal bullets, are meant to disperse crowds by inflicting pain and incapacitating people without penetrating flesh. But they can cause huge damage if used incorrectly — when fired at close range, for example — and depending on the type of projectile and launcher used.

“If they hit the eyes, then you’re almost certainly going to lose your eye. And when they hit any part of the face, the bones in the face are so delicate then you’ll probably have some sort of damage,” says Haar.
Chemical irritants also cause physical damage, particularly if used ‘inappropriately’: at the wrong concentration, in confined spaces, on children or in the same neighbourhoods day after day, she says.

CCW use is escalating, says Haar. Whereas 30 or so years ago, just a few Western countries produced and used them, now they are cheap and diffusing into global markets. The report also reveals growing government clampdown on protest and the militarisation of the police.

So what can be done?

  1. Steps to regulate crowd-control weapons

  2. The UN should draw up and enforce legislation on CCW manufacture and use
  3. Manufacturers should do rigorous premarket research and testing on the health impacts of CCW
  4. Governments need to independently test weapons and police trained in their use
  5. Limit the use of CCW and at the very least monitor them
  6. More research on impacts and ethics of their use
First, she says, the UN should draw up and enforce legislation on CCW manufacture and use.

Second, manufacturers should do rigorous premarket research and testing on their health impacts, draw up proper protocols for their use and track buyers. “We tried really hard to look into who manufactures what, how much [they make], who they sell it to, but this information isn’t public and it’s really hard to find,” Haar explains.

Third, governments need to independently test weapons before buying them, and police need proper training on both their use and human rights standards.

Fourth, states need to limit the use of CCW and at the very least monitor them as they do conventional weapons: “how many bullets are used, which person fired that weapon, which gun it came from — things like that.”

And lastly, there is a need for far more research on the health impacts and ethics of their use. Imogen Mathers is producer/assistant editor at SciDev.Net. You can reach her on @ImogenMathers


[1] Rohini Haar and Vincent Iacopino Lethal in disguise: the health consequences of crowd-control weapons (Physicians for Human Rights, March 2016)