If you’ve been watching what’s going on in Ferguson, Missouri, lately, you’re quite well aware that the police have been basically spraying tear gas almost everywhere they can. Suddenly, articles are springing up all over the internet about the use of tear gas — which, it turns out is technically banned for use in warfare as a chemical weapon. The history of how that came about, however, is a bit complicated, as this State Department notice on tear gas discusses. Basically, there was a dispute over whether or not tear gas violated the Geneva Conventions. Here’s a snippet:
In 1966 the Communist countries strongly criticized the United States for using tear gas and chemical herbicides in Vietnam. In the General Assembly, Hungary charged that the use in war of these agents was prohibited by the Geneva Protocol and other provisions of international law. The United States denied that the protocol applied to nontoxic gases or chemical herbicides. Joined by Canada, Italy, and the United Kingdom, the United States introduced amendments to a Hungarian resolution that would have made the use of any chemical and bacteriological weapons an international crime. In its final form the resolution called for “strict observance by all states of the principles and objectives” of the protocol, condemned “all actions contrary to those objectives,” and invited all states to accede to the protocol. During the debate the U.S. Representa-tive stated that it would be up to each country to decide whether or how to adhere to the protocol, “in the light of constitutional and other consider-ations.”
Interpretation of the protocol remained a thorny problem. In his foreword to a U.N. report on chemical and biological weapons (July 1, 1969), Secretary General Thant recommended a renewed appeal for accession to the protocol and a “clear affirmation” that it covered the use in war of all chemical and biological weapons, including tear gas and other harassing agents. Discussion in the Conference of the Committee on Disarmament (CCD) showed that most members agreed with the Thant recommendations. Swedish Ambassador Myrdal, a strong advocate of the broad interpretation, stressed the danger of escalation if nonlethal chemical agents were permitted. She also pointed out that the military use of tear gases should be distinguished from their use for riot control and that there was a similar difference between using herbicides in war and employing them for peaceful purposes. On the other hand, U.K. Disarmament Minister Mulley held that only the parties to the protocol were entitled to say what it meant.
Years later, there was a push to officially renounce the use of chemical weapons in war, which became the chemical weapons treaty… but it included exceptions for domestic use. Those exceptions were mainly pushed by the US:
The 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention doesn’t apply to domestic law enforcement. (The United States was a major proponent of the exemption, fearing that the convention might be interpreted to prohibit lethal injection.)
The Washington Post has a detailed look at how it’s being used in Ferguson, and how the police there seem to think it’s perfectly safe:
Ferguson police chief Tom Jackson has defended the use of tear gas. “There are complaints about the response from some people,” he said, “but to me, nobody got hurt seriously, and I’m happy about that.”
But another report highlights that the negative health effects of tear gas are severely underestimated by law enforcement groups who use it. In an interview with Vox.com, Sven-Eric Jordt, a scientist who studies tear gas, warns that law enforcement has become too complacent with this narrative that tear gas is a harmless way of dispersing crowds:
I frankly think that we don’t know much about the long-term effects, especially in civilian exposure with kids or elderly or people in the street who might have some kind of lung disease already. There’s very few follow-up studies. These are very active chemicals that can cause quite significant injury, so I’m concerned about the increased use of these agents.
I’m very concerned that, as use has increased, tear gas has been normalized. The attitude now is like, this is safe and we can use it as much as we want.
Even as it’s been banned for use in war. Something seems… very, very wrong with this situation.