Global: 'Alarming' extent of police tear gas abuse around the world revealed

Hong Kong riot police fired tear gas and water cannons at protesters last year © DALE DE LA REY/ AFP via Getty Images

Amnesty has launched an interactive website documenting security forces’ misuse of tear gas in 22 countries around the world

Launch comes as tear gas is being widely used in Hong Kong, Paris and cities across the US

‘Given the evidence emerging from US cities at the moment, there’s a very real risk of UK-manufactured tear gas being used against Black Lives Matter protesters in dangerous and highly inappropriate ways’ - Oliver Feeley-Sprague

A shadowy and poorly regulated global trade of tear gas is fuelling police human rights violations against peaceful protesters on a global scale, Amnesty International said today as it launched a new resource analysing the abuse of the riot control agent around the world.

Tear Gas: An investigation is the organisation’s new interactive, multimedia microsite explaining global use of tear gas, how it is used and documenting scores of cases of its misuse by security forces worldwide, often resulting in severe injuries or death.

The website launches on the anniversary of the Hong Kong Police Force beginning its months-long barrage of tear gas against peaceful demonstrations – which have recently been renewed – and as police forces in dozens of cities across the US have been attacking protesters with the chemical weapon.

Oliver Feeley-Sprague, Programme Director for Military, Security and Police at Amnesty UK, said:

“Amnesty’s research is an alarming wake-up call to how tear gas is being used indiscriminately by security forces around the world on an unprecedented scale.

“As we witness unrest across the globe we see the gas employed in ways that it was never intended, often in large quantities against peaceful protesters or by firing projectiles directly at people, causing injury and even death.

“Just last year pictures showed British-made tear gas being used against peaceful protesters in Hong Kong. And given the evidence emerging from numerous US cities at the moment, there’s a very real risk of UK-manufactured tear gas being used against Black Lives Matter protesters in dangerous and highly inappropriate ways.

“In some of the cases that we have researched, the use of tear gas appears to constitute torture or other ill-treatment. The UK Government must prevent any further supplies of crowd control equipment being used abroad to threaten legitimate protests. It is also imperative that the use of a chemical weapon that is so often marketed as being a ‘safe’ option to disperse crowds is subject to proper controls and regulations at an international level.”

Disturbing data from an international investigation

Over the past year, Amnesty’s Crisis Evidence Lab has analysed videos showing tear gas misuse around the world, primarily through those posted to Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.

Using open source investigation methods, the organisation has verified close to 500 videos and highlighted almost 80 events in 22 countries and territories where tear gas has been misused, confirming the location, date, and validity. The analysis was carried out by Amnesty’s Digital Verification Corps – a network of students at six universities on four continents trained in sourcing and verifying content from social media.

Alongside interviews with protesters themselves, this analysis exposes a disturbing global trend of widespread, unlawful use of tear gas. 

From school buses to hospitals: Abuse of a lethal weapon

Amnesty has documented police abusing tear gas in multiple ways:

  • Firing into confined spaces
  • Firing directly at individuals
  • Using excessive quantities
  • Firing at peaceful protests 
  • Firing against groups who may be less able to flee or more susceptible to its effects, such as children, older people and people with disabilities.

Specifically, tear gas has been documented being fired through the windshield of a passenger car, inside a school bus, at a funeral procession, inside hospitals, residential buildings, metros, shopping malls, and – bizarrely– in virtually empty streets.

Security forces have also fired canisters directly at individuals, leading to fatalities; and from trucks, jeeps and drones hurtling by at high speeds. Those on the receiving end have included climate protesters, secondary school students, medical staff, journalists, migrants and human rights defenders, such as members of the Bring Back Our Girls movement in Nigeria.

One video clip shows how police in the US city of Philadelphia on 1 June 2020 fired repeated volleys of tear gas at dozens of protesters trapped on a steep highway embankment with no safe escape route.

Doctors in Omdurman, outside Sudan’s capital Khartoum, told Amnesty that security forces and troops raided a hospital emergency room last year, filling it with noxious gas, further injuring 10 patients. One doctor said: “The soldiers fired tear gas and live ammunition inside the hospital, then some came to the emergency room and fired four tear gas canisters; thank God only one exploded.” A tear gas canister was thrown under the bed of a 70-year-old man who was a cardiac arrest patient. He died 10 minutes later.

A video from Venezuela shows a tear gas canister punching a hole in a makeshift wooden shield a protester used to defend himself from police use of the weapon in Caracas. It was a close miss: just a few centimetres off and it would have caused a life-threatening injury.

Amnesty’s new site includes video interviews with a range of external analysts – from an emergency physician to experts in policing, and business and human rights.

Lack of international regulation

Despite its widespread misuse, there are no agreed international regulations on the trade in tear gas and other riot control agents. Few states provide public information on the quantity and destination of tear gas exports, hampering independent oversight.

Amnesty and the Omega Research Foundation have campaigned for over two decades for greater controls on the production, use and trade in tear gas and other less lethal weapons. As a result, the UN and regional bodies such as the EU and the Council of Europe have recognised the need to regulate the export of less lethal weapons.

Amnesty joins the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture in equating the use of tear gas in certain situations as amounting to torture or other ill-treatment.

Following work with the Alliance for Torture-Free Trade, the UN is exploring potential development of international trade controls on less lethal weapons and other goods to prevent their use in torture, other ill-treatment and the death penalty. Amnesty and Omega are now pressing for such measures to include tear gas and other riot control agents.

Countries and territories covered for Amnesty’s microsite:

Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, DRC, Ecuador, France, Guinea, Hong Kong, Honduras, Haiti, India (Indian-administered Kashmir), Iraq, Iran, Kenya, Lebanon, Nigeria, Israel-OPT, Sudan, Turkey, USA including US/Mexican border, Venezuela, Zimbabwe

Manufacturers of tear gas and related launchers covered:

Cavim; Condor Non-Lethal Technologies; DJI*; Falken; PepperBall; The Safariland Group; and Tippmann Sports LLC. Amnesty International approached all seven companies for comment and only one responded.

*produces commercial drones which have been used to launch tear gas in Gaza.

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