Respect for freedom of expression and assembly is one of the key indicators of a government’s respect for human rights1 , and one of the pillars of modern participatory democracy. When people exercising their freedom of expression challenge or criticise government, or demonstrations are organised to oppose government policy or leaders, or even powerful nonstate actors, state respect for the exercise of these fundamental freedoms may rapidly decline. In recent years, there has been an increase in the number of popular protests in which people have taken to the streets to express grievances and claim their rights. These protests have swept across the globe, leaving no continent untouched. In many cases, police and security forces have responded in a manner that profoundly undermines fundamental human rights, including freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression, among others – often leading to escalations in violence through unwarranted, inappropriate, or disproportionate uses of force. This trend is not exclusive to authoritarian governments; democratic governments have responded in a similar or problematic manner to acts of protest.
Police and other law inforcement agencies throughout the world are increasingly responding to popular protests with so-called crowd-control weapons, which include tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons. These weapons are regularly used to disperse protesters, which has resulted in injuries, disability, and death.
The report Lethal in Disguise published by Physicians for Human Rights and the International Network of Civil Liberties Organizations (INCLO) aims to raise awareness about the misuse and abuse of crowd-control weapons, the detrimental health effects that these weapons can have, and the impact of their use on the meaningful enjoyment of freedom of assembly and expression.
The report examines six kinds of weapons used internationally:
kinetic impact projectiles (rubber bullets),
chemical irritants (tear gas),
water cannons, disorientation devices (flashbang or stun grenades),
acoustic weapons (sound cannons or sonic cannons),
directed energy weapons (electromagnetic heating devices).
However, there is very little information on how these weapons should be used and on their potential health impacts. Despite their long-standing presence, the use and misuse of these weapons, and the health consequences thereof, have not been systematically studied or documented. Manufacturers provide limited information on the intended use of CCWs and their possible adverse health effects and most law enforcement agencies collect only limited information on use-of-force incidents involving CCWs. If they do collect data, it is rarely publicly available.
Against this background, the International Network of Civil Liberties Organizations (INCLO) and Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) have partnered to document the health consequences of CCWs. PHR applied its deep medical and scientific expertise to the systematic review of the published medical literature and produced an analysis of the weaponry and its potential consequences. INCLO, through its network of national civil liberties and human rights organisations, contributed its broad knowledge of police brutality, social protest issues, and onthe-ground human rights challenges.
The health effects of kinetic impact projectiles and chemical irritants are described in significant detail; these are the two weapon types about which there is a lot of evidence. There are many flagrant examples of the misuse of crowd-control weapons, some of which are documented in case studies included in the report. Countries covered are: Egypt, South Africa, Israel, Argentina, Kenya, Hungary, England, Canada and the United States.
Lethal in Disguise. The Health Consequences of Crowd-Control Weapons. PHR & INCLO, 2016