Why you should care
Because these chemicals are banned in warfare but used on civilians — a lot.
Ricardo Martínez is a freelance journalist based in Peru. He has also reported from Brazil, Mexico, Chile and Bolivia.
Police spraying tear gas at crowds of peaceful protesters has become an all-too-common sight in Venezuela. But it’s actually part of a bigger problem in the Americas: These less-lethal chemical attacks on people’s right to life and physical integrity go repeatedly unchecked because there are no clear, enforceable rules.
Be it violent policing of Brazil’s latest protests against reforms, Chilean zorrillo tanks spraying students or the unwarranted use of force in Ferguson, Missouri, and at Standing Rock, where a young woman was shot in the eye with a canister, citizens are proving defenseless. The culprit? Tear gas, which is banned in warfare under the Geneva Conventions but wielded freely by cops.
I was incapacitated for two and a half days.
Horacio Siciliano, photojournalist
Horacio Siciliano, a 27-year-old freelance photojournalist in Venezuela, was shot in the chest with a canister while covering recent protests in Caracas. According to Siciliano, at times the police seemed to be targeting demonstrators and bystanders. “I was incapacitated for two and a half days,” he says, noting how one young man was killed — the second reported tear-gas casualty in Venezuela.
Physical reactions to tear gas can range from watering eyes, sneezing, coughing and vomiting to temporary blindness. Most studies have not found any negative long-term effects, but such studies have been few and far between. According to a 2016 report in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, “[b]ecause of the difficulties associated with conducting epidemiological investigations of [riot-control agent] effects and the lack of public support for these studies, few epidemiological studies have been published, and the reliability of the results is often deficient.”
Chilean toxicology scholar Andrei Tchertnitchin attempted a closer look at the possible relationship between tear gas exposure and miscarriages in the late ’80s. “I was able to gather positive correlation results, but couldn’t prove it because of the limited sample size,” he says. Physicians for Human Rights warns, however, that tear gas has caused permanent injuries and miscarriages, in addition to fatalities.
The United Nations has repeatedly condemned law enforcement’s excessive use of tear gas on populations, and the Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, adopted in 1990, outlines general provisions. But there’s only so much the international community can do when the Chemical Weapons Convention doesn’t prohibit the use of “nonlethal weapons” for law enforcement.
Holding local authorities accountable won’t happen through international law. “If people expect there is going to be a central enforcement agency that holds governments or local law enforcement agencies accountable for their use of tear gas, [they can] forget it,” says David P. Fidler, professor of law at Indiana University and adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Instead, domestic laws would have to govern tear gas. But finding a one-size-fits-all approach is difficult, given that law enforcement agencies adhere to different protocols and training. Defining rules in the tangled web of local, state and federal systems in each country would be complicated enough. But regulating the technologically thriving less-lethal weapons industry — estimated to garner more than $9 billion by 2022, according to Allied Market Research — with only local laws also seems highly unlikely.
Anna Feigenbaum, author of Tear Gas: From the Battlefields of WWI to the Streets of Today, offers a possible solution. By regulating tear gas trade, she says, supply lines could be monitored and moderated as well as provide more transparency on international deals. As it stands, with lax international regulations on trading tear gas, authorities can acquire vast quantities without facing questions — to be sanctioned under the Chemical Weapons Convention, governments would have to be stockpiling on a massive scale. According to Fidler, law enforcement’s stocks do not reach that limit. “Local and national police forces use tear gas quite regularly,” he says. “I’ve never seen the convention to be a concern.”
There is a drawback to regulation, though: If law enforcement agencies are suddenly under equipped or not equipped with tear gas, Fidler says, this could lead to vindicating greater use of force. “If you tighten up local use, then you get into bigger problems,” he says, noting how authorities will say they’re being left with only “lethal, more destructive means of dealing with dangers to public order.” He also points out that law enforcement relies on having the discretion to react in the heat of the moment as to what type of force is needed.
That discretion and how it’s used, however, is a matter of great debate. Critics argue that police are justifying their proportionality when facing confrontations with small, often peaceful groups. The U.N.’s special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, for example, notes how harmful the use of water cannons and gas can be, particularly “since it does not discriminate between demonstrators and non-demonstrators, healthy people and people with health conditions.”
Suppressing protest this way, Siciliano says, leads to more violence and distrust of authorities. In Venezuela, he believes these frictions are making political differences even starker, and potentially more violent: “Those consequences are also very dangerous.”