'Nonlethal weapons' fired at protesters are having very dangerous — even lethal — effects
By MIRIAM BERGER | The Washington Post | Published: November 23, 2019
The death toll in Iraq after weeks of protests is staggering: At least 340 dead — a number expected to be actually much higher because the government is repressing release of official information while security forces continue to fire live ammunition, among other tactics, to silence demonstrators.
In comparison, just two people have died after nearly six months of unrest in Hong Kong. Police there have primarily relied on nonlethal weapons, such as sponge-tipped bullets and tear gas, to try to control and disperse crowds.
Only that's not where the story ends. Nonlethal weapons may sound like a relatively painless policing tactic — but the results can be incredibly destructive, dangerous and even deadly.
On Wednesday, Chile announced it was suspending the use of pellet guns after the projectiles blinded at least one eye in more than 200 people in just 33 days of protests. At the height of unrest in Kashmir in 2016, one doctor told the Guardian that on average every other hour someone's eye was ruptured by pellet guns being fired by Indian security forces. And even when police aren't using live ammunition in Iraq, protesters are still dying from nonlethal weapons, according to human rights groups.
To make sense of the violence, The Washington Post explored what these weapons are and how they're being used against today's global wave of protests.
WHAT ARE NONLETHAL WEAPONS?
Nonlethal weapons come in all kinds of forms, from rubber-coated bullets, intended to stun rather than kill people, to sponge-tipped projectiles, tear gas, batons, water cannons and pellet shotguns that spread a large number of small pellets in an indiscriminate way.
More recently, human rights groups have pushed for mainstreaming a new name: "less-lethal weapons." That's intended to dispel the misconception that these weapons, especially when used improperly, can't kill, said Lucila Santos, program director at the International Network of Civil Liberties Organizations (INCLO), a consortium of different human rights groups.
Though often used for public law enforcement, many of these weapons have their origins in the military. British authorities, for example, first developed rubber-coated bullets to use against unrest in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, according to AFP.
There are several international codes that regulate the use of weapons, less-lethal ones included. Last year, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights released the first "U.N. Human Rights Guidelines on Less-Lethal Weapons in Law Enforcement." The general principles are that these weapons should not be directly fired at people's faces or at minors and are only to be used with restraint and when necessary.
The problem, Santos said, is that law enforcement is often poorly trained in how to use these weapons, in part because of the mindset that they can be taken less seriously as "nonlethal."
On the contrary: The weapons can be incredibly dangerous, especially when fired at close range or targeted toward the head and face. A 2017 study by U.S.-based researchers found that about 3 in 100 people injured by rubber bullets die as a result of the impact.
Research conducted by INCLO and Physicians for Human Rights found "that more than 70% of the 11,925 documented cases of injuries caused by kinetic impact projectiles (like rubber bullets and pellet rounds) over a period of 25 years resulted in permanent vision loss, blunt injuries to the brain, sprain, bruises and fractures." Many victims require intensive, and costly, surgeries.
In 2019, INCLO published a worldwide report on the issue, "Unhealed Wounds," documenting the faces and stories of people hurt by less-lethal weapons worldwide, including Russia, Colombia and Kenya.
As part of the project, Israeli photographer Tali Mayer documented cases of Palestinians, including minors, hit in the face with sponge-tipped bullets fired by Israeli security forces. Mayer herself was struck in the face with this kind of bullet while covering clashes between Palestinians and Israeli forces as a journalist in 2014. Her jaw shattered and cheek split open from the impact, which police at the scene initially attributed to a thrown rock. This month, a Palestinian photographer lost his eye after being struck by a rubber bullet while he covered demonstrations. Israeli authorities have denied targeting him.
Now as protests worldwide escalate, Santos said, the use and abuse of nonlethal weapons are becoming part of a global conversation.
In August, the eye patch became the symbol of Hong Kong's protests after a video of a protester with an eye streaming blood went viral. The cause: a projectile, perhaps a bean bag, probably fired by police. Protesters took to wearing eye patches in solidarity and started carrying signs that read, "Any eye for an eye."
The violence had become even more normalized by early October, when 39-year-old Veby Indah, an Indonesian journalist, lost sight in one eye after being hit in the face with a rubber bullet while on the job.
Law enforcement's use of nonlethal weapons has not deescalated tensions six months into protests. Instead, some protesters told The Post's Shibani Mahtani, it's had the opposite effect: All the rubber bullets, water cannons and tear gas burning their eyes and throats have only made people more battle hardened.
Some policing tactics, like water cannons, may seem relatively harmless, but part of their power is that they can cause uncontrollable damage.
"Water cannons are not a toy for the Hong Kong police to deploy as a sign of strength," Man-Kei Tam, director of Amnesty International Hong Kong, said in a statement in August. "These are powerful weapons that are inherently indiscriminate and have the potential of causing serious injury and even death. This equipment can knock a person over, push them into fixed objects, cause permanent loss of sight, or pick up loose objects and propel them as missiles."
More than 200 Chileans are now blind in one eye — the result of security forces firing pellet guns and rubber bullets at anti-government demonstrations that broke out last month. The staggering number even prompted a response from the embattled government: On Wednesday, Chilean police announced they are suspending broad use of the guns.
"National police director Mario Rozas said Tuesday that pellet guns will now be used only in extreme cases, in which the lives of civilians or police are at risk," The Associated Press reported.
That's too little too late for the victims, said Andrés López Cabello of the Center for Legal and Social Studies (CLES), an Argentina-based human rights group working around Latin America.
"[The police] destroyed their lives," he told The Post.
Earlier this month Cabello was part of a human rights mission to Chile to investigate police practices.
"There's no respect for the proportionality criteria in the use of force," he concluded. "In the face of any kind of protest they use the shot guns. They used it like it wasn't dangerous."
Chilean security forces have had less-lethal weapons at their disposal for a long time, Cabello said. Only now, "the scale is new," he said.
"The police are not using these less-lethal weapons to stop a violent demonstration or a violent attack," he added. "They are punishing the protests."
Chile's public prosecutor is already investigating more than 1,000 allegations of abuse, including torture and sexual violence, filed against police and military forces during the last month of demonstrations.
So far, none of the 26 people who've died in the unrest were killed by a less than lethal weapon. Two people, however, are in comas after being hit by nonlethal weapons, according to Cabello.
Iraqis taking to the streets against their government know they face the threat of live ammunition.
But Amnesty International has also documented cases of Iraqi security forces firing tear gas and stun grenades directly at protesters in the ongoing uprising. At least 20 people have died of the impact, though the number is expected to be higher, according to Amnesty International. Iraqi authorities are using a type of military grenades manufactured in Iran and Serbia that are up to 10 times heavier than standard tear gas canisters, the London-based human rights group reported.
Tear gas itself can cause severe respiratory problems — but a canister shot at someone's head is an even scarier scenario.
"All the evidence points to Iraqi security forces deploying these military-grade grenades against protesters in Baghdad, apparently aiming for their heads or bodies at point-blank range," Lynn Maalouf, Middle East research director at Amnesty International, said in a statement. "This has had devastating results, in multiple cases piercing the victims' skulls, resulting in gruesome wounds and death after the grenades embed inside their heads."