NAJ Taylor / Al Jazeera – 2012-05-06 01:04:45
“Tear gas with nerve agent & live ammunition being used against civilians in Tahrir. A massacre is taking place.”
— Mohamed El Baradei on Twitter, 23 November 2011
“Terrorism, from an environmental perspective, voids the distinction between violence against people and violence against things: it comprises a form of violence against the very human-ambient ‘things’ without which people cannot remain people.”
— Peter Sloterdijk, Terror from the Air (p.25), 2009
BRISBANE Australia (May 5, 2012) — The extensive use of “tear gas” was arguably the single-most ubiquitous and underreported feature of the state response during last year’s mass displays of civil resistance at various sites around the world.
Indeed, it is difficult to think of a continent on earth in which at least one state did not shower its dissenting citizens – whether they were practicing violent or non-violent resistance – with some form of chemical agent. The Arab Spring, for instance, coincided with large-scale protests in Israel and Iran in which tear gas was also used against civilian populations.
According to the Federation of American Scientists, such “riot control agents” are “non-lethal weapons”, which:
“[…] produce transient discomfort and eye closure to render the recipient temporarily incapable of fighting or resisting. Law enforcement agencies use them for riot control and military forces use them for training and in combat. […] Their major activity is to cause pain, burning or discomfort on exposed mucous membranes and skin; these effects occur within seconds of exposure, but seldom persist more than a few minutes after exposure has ended.”
But the true effect of such chemicals on the atmosphere – and by extension, on people – is contingent on both the form of tear gas in use (the Russians are said to have used a more lethal composition in 2002 than is common elsewhere, for example), as well as the biophysical conditions into which they are released (that is to say, a canister of tear gas behaves differently in a windy field than it does in an enclosed space).
This may be crudely illustrated by reflecting upon two unrelated statements that were issued to the same group of protesters in the moments immediately prior to the UC Davis “Pepper Spray Incident” on November 18, 2011.
In-depth coverage of the global movement
In one statement [PDF] to protesters, university administrators relayed the grave urgency with which a “hazardous chemical situation” in a closed environment must be addressed:
“The Fire Department is responding to a hazardous chemical situation over in the Chemistry Building … they’re not responding here. They are not going to hurt you … But I just want to let you know you’re probably going to hear sirens pretty soon.”
In another statement to protesters, the wilful use of chemical agents against them on behalf of the university administration is seen as a way to encourage the protesters to refrain from certain types of violent behaviour:
“The police will not use violence — once they march – if you are not violent – they consider linking arms —as passive resistance – they will only – use chemical weapons – if you use force — against them — I would encourage — a position of non-violence.”
Irrespective of their relative lethality, this simple juxtaposition is useful in demonstrating the notion that chemical weapons alter the biophysical and psychological environment.
Such deployment of non-lethal agents against citizens deemed to be “rioting” is performed so routinely that it rarely draws an audible level of public debate. Fundamental questions remain about why the use of toxic agents on the battlefield is subject to more stringent rules than the control of a state’s citizens.
Aren’t chemical weapons illegal?
Yes, and no — it depends upon the circumstance.
Yes, in that the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention does prohibit the use of certain agents with “toxic properties” during times of armed conflict, including the most commonly used riot control agent, CS. The reasons for this are complex, but are largely due to foreseeable effects of tear gas when used in combination with conventional weapons such as sub-machine guns, as well as the inability for combatants to distinguish tear gas from more harmful toxic gases during the course of battle.
No, in that the treaty text does not, however, limit agents of the state (such as those vested with law enforcement) to deploy tear gas and other toxic chemicals for the purposes of civil control within the state’s sovereign territory during peacetime.
Simply put, tear gas is a chemical weapon under the laws of war, but a viable tool of social order in peacetime.
As a result, it is common for signatory states to the Chemical Weapons Convention to stockpile, develop and produce “riot-control agents” such as tear gas, as long as it:
“[…] can produce rapidly in humans sensory irritation or disabling physical effects which disappear within a short time following termination of exposure.”
Legal use beyond the cover of state sovereignty
Additionally, there are a number of state-specific provisions that permit an even broader reading of the convention.
For instance, the United States has created two loopholes that permit it far greater deployment of riot control agents. First, the US has renounced by Executive Order in 1975 the prohibition on tear gas during armed conflict where it is deemed necessary to “save lives”. This essentially includes those situations where:
“(a) Use of riot control agents in riot control situations in areas under direct and distinct US military control, to include controlling rioting prisoners of war.
(b) Use of riot control agents in situations in which civilians are used to mask or screen attacks and civilian casualties can be reduced or avoided.
(c) Use of riot control agents in rescue missions in remotely isolated areas, of downed aircrews and passengers and escaping prisoners.
(d) Use of riot control agents in rear echelon areas outside the zone of immediate combat to protect convoys from civil disturbances, terrorists and paramilitary organisations.”
Second, the US is known to deploy vast stores of tear gas in the grounds of its foreign missions around the globe. Essentially, this is possible because of the special “inviolable” status of foreign missions, their staff and residence under the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, in which it states in part:
“The premises of the mission shall be inviolable. The agents of the receiving State may not enter them, except with the consent of the head of the mission.” [Article 22 (1)]
“The premises of the mission, their furnishings and other property thereon and the means of transport of the mission shall be immune from search, requisition, attachment or execution.” [Article 22(3)]
As a result, the United States was able to respond to the attacks on its embassy during the onset of the Iran Revolution by making provisions for the arming all of its embassies with stores of tear gas so that “mobs attempting to storm US embassies would be greeted with blasts of tear gas from nozzles concealed in doors and lobbies”.
Thus, coupled with the Executive Order of 1975, the US president is equipped with two mechanisms by which national security may be justifiably maintained through the deployment of chemical weapons on citizens of not only the United States, but of non-US citizens on the sovereign territory of other states.
However, it is not only the US that is readily pushing the boundaries of the global ban on chemical weapons. Similar conditions enabled Gaddafi to store significant caches of small arms and light weapons (SALW) in the Libyan embassies in Africa, Asia and Europe. For instance, the cache discovered in Greece alone was reported to have included, “30 handguns, two sub-machineguns, 15 kg of plastic explosives, detonators, two hand grenades, silencers and wiretapping equipment,” as well as “not chemical weapons … [but] chemical stuff … to manufacture certain types of hand-made grenades”.
A number of other states, including most notably Russia and Syria, are widely known to have developed far more toxic forms of tear gas for use on civilian populations than the commonly deployed CS. Claims are that more harmful gases have been deployed in Cairo, although these remain unconfirmed.
The settings in which states may legally deploy tear gas are, therefore, as equally complex as they are varied.
The practice of atmo-terrorism
The manner and extended period over which particular states have deployed tear gas during the course of the Arab Spring supports Peter Sloterdijk’s notion of “atmo-terrorism” which he explores at length in his monograph, Terror from the Air.
Whilst Sloterdijk does not make special mention of the problem of tear gas, he does write at length about the way in which altering certain environments constitutes “negative air conditioning”, such that “[…] the gas terrorist’s assault on the air induces desperation in those attacked, who, unable to refrain from breathing, are forced to participate in the obliteration of their own life”.
Simply put, this is because to continually pollute the natural environment with toxic gases – especially in confined spaces, which are themselves artificial atmospheres – will produce what is known as “lethal concentration time”.
In this way, reports from Bahrain by the international activist group Physicians for Human Rights claim that at least 34 Bahrainis have died as a direct result of tear gas since unrest began in March 2011. The events in Bahrain over the past year have become one of the few instances in history in which tear gas has been deployed over such a long period of time – and this irrespective of the state being a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention, which effectively bans the use of chemical weapons in wartime.
Equally alarmingly is the nature in which the tear gas is allegedly being deployed by Bahraini law enforcement:
“Several high-profile Bahrainis – including Nabeel Rajab, the head of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights and Ali Salman, the leader of Al Wefaq, the largest opposition party – have had their homes attacked in such a fashion.”
The state of Bahrain appears to be not only targeting the homes of individuals with tear gas without due precaution for the effect of the chemical agents in confined spaces, but also over such a long time-period that the air and atmosphere – what Sloterdijk refers to as “the primary media for life, in both the physical and metaphorical sense” – are being altered.
Put in the more polite terms of the UC Davis administrator mentioned earlier: Bahrainis are being subjected to a “hazardous chemical situation”.
Tragically, on the eve of the Bahrain Grand Prix held last weekend, a 37-year-old gardener was killed, reports say, after being chased and beaten by police.
Whilst the image of the deceased is certainly graphic, take a look at what is tied around his neck: a gas mask.
NAJ Taylor is a doctoral researcher at the University of Queensland, writing on the practice of environmental and humanitarian harm in modern warfare.