Banned worldwide in 1925, tear gas underwent an image overhaul before being embraced as an alternative to bullets. The canisters littering Hong Kong streets have been deployed indoors and in poorly ventilated areas, against suppliers’ guidance.
“What makes tear gas legal to use is that protesters are always supposed to be able to get away from the smoke, and the smoke is always supposed to be able to evaporate and be ephemeral,” says Dr Anna Feigenbaum, author of the comprehensive 2017 book on the subject, Tear Gas.
“The problem is that in Hong Kong, neither of those things are true. You have a situation where there are lots of cordoned-off streets, there are barricades, and there are narrow roads that have been blocked by police lines.
“Firing tear gas in an enclosed location like an MTR station is highly dangerous. It can make the tear gas more potent because there is less air and fewer escape routes. This can lead to more severe health effects, as well as trampling, stampeding and other confined-space injuries.”
According to Feigenbaum, a senior lecturer at Britain’s Bournemouth University, despite hundreds of reported deaths from its effects over the decades – as well as injuries ranging from burns and brain damage to respiratory ailments and miscarriages – there is no legal obligation in any country to record the number of deaths or injuries attributed to tear gas.
The first recorded use of tear gas was when grenades filled with methylbenzyl bromide were fired by French troops into German trenches in August 1914. That was followed by a series of horrific exchanges of lethal gases between Allied and German troops throughout World War I, chillingly evoked in the “froth-corrupted lungs” of a dying man in Wilfred Owen’s 1920 poem Dulce et Decorum Est. Tear gas was banned in warfare under the Five Powers Treaty of 1922, before the 1925 Geneva Protocol banned all use of chemical weapons.
And yet just as the world turned its back on weaponised gas, what followed was what Feigenbaum describes as “a golden age of tear gas” in the 1920s, when US military officials and arms suppliers launched a PR campaign to promote tear gas in civilian settings, transforming its image from that of a toxic chemical into a supposedly harmless tool for suppressing dissent.
The shift by Britain to acceptance is rooted in the 1919 Amritsar massacre in India – later described as the “darkest stain on British rule” – when 379 people were shot dead by the British Army during a protest against legislation that gave colonial authorities increased power to arrest and incarcerate Indian subjects.
However, selling the weapon overseas and using it on home soil proved to be two very different propositions. In the 1969 Battle of the Bogside, in Derry, Northern Ireland, CS gas was used against British civilians for the first time, at the height of sectarian tensions. The Royal Ulster Constabulary fired more than 1,000 rounds into the Catholic area in an attempt to quell rioters, with one round falling into the bedroom of a 16-month-old baby and nearly choking him to death. The incident triggered moral panic and a public inquiry. The Battle of the Bogside remains one of only a handful of incidents in which tear gas has been used against civilians on British soil.
Icarus Wong Ho-yin, co-founder of Hong Kong-based human-rights group the Civil Rights Observer, says he believes Hong Kong police could ultimately face civil action and personal injury lawsuits over their “excessive” use of tear gas in recent weeks.
“If you look at the historical background,” says Wong, “tear gas is prohibited by the Chemical Weapons Convention for use in warfare […] Tear gas is a chemical weapon […] That is why police should only use tear gas as a last resort, especially when demonstrations are held in residential areas.
“When [police forces give] training on the use of tear gas, one of the very basic principles is not to use it in indoor areas or in any area with poor ventilation. Even the weapon supplier guidelines clearly state tear gas can be used only in outdoor areas or areas with good ventilation.
“The Hong Kong Police Force has completely violated these guidelines.”
“If we are at the point where we have to poison a population to make it shut up, what has gone wrong in the democratic process?” she asks. “When we see this amount of tear gas (over 2,000 rounds of tear gas) being used on people who are, for the vast majority, non-violent and unarmed, it is usually because something has failed miserably within that process.
That is the issue that should really be addressed, rather than what new kind of weapon we can suppress people’s voices with.” ■
Remember that the gas will impregnate clothing for many months, so any clothing that may have been contaminated should be immediately washed several times or discarded.
Any exposed skin should be washed with soap and water. Shower first in cold water, then warm water. Do not bathe.
Do not rub your eyes or face, or this will reactivate any remaining crystals.
#RobertReview (Tear Gas Dangers): 9.5 | 10
Published: 17th August 2019.
Tear Gas was banned worldwide in 1925. Learn how the Hong Kong Police violated all guidelines of usage. If you must poison a population to shut it up, what has gone wrong in the democratic process?
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