Disarmament Insight


Monday, 17 September 2007

Do "non-lethal" weapons really exist?

Last week, I spent a day with a very interesting mixture of people talking about so-called “non-lethal” weapons. It was quite the multi-stakeholder encounter.

There was the demand side of the non-lethal equation; the police officers and soldiers who were interested in finding out what new technologies could provide in the way of enhanced capabilities to control riots, disperse crowds or otherwise apply force to sticky situations all the while minimising deaths and permanent injuries.

The supply side of the non-lethal equation was also well represented – the arms manufacturers, ever eager to apply new technologies in ingenious ways to respond to the demands of their customers. At one point during the proceedings, we were even given demonstrations of some of the newest non-lethal innovations; e.g. a handgun that fires jets of chemical irritant at 430km/h, a trailer-mounted gas dispenser, and the mother of all paint-ball guns (complete with colour-coded slugs filled with a choice of indelible or washable paint or chemical pepper agent).

Mixed in among the demand and the supply elements were what you might call the multipliers – research and technology professionals offering their services to help bring the two sides together.

There were, however, no lawyers present.

I’m not a lawyer myself, but I found myself stepping into that role on numerous occasions throughout the day, inadequately of course. After all, the debate on so-called non-lethal technologies throws up a lot of thorny questions, legal and otherwise.

First and foremost, what is a non-lethal weapon? Most definitions focus on the purpose for which the weapon was designed, i.e., to incapacitate people while minimising fatalities. But the lethality of a weapon is determined less by the purpose of its design and more by the context of its use. It depends on how, where and when the weapon is employed, the motivation of the user of the weapon and, crucially, the vulnerability of the victim of the weapon (for more on this approach, see Aurélia Merçay's posting of September 5).

Looked at in this way, an AK47 assault rifle is 100% lethal when used to execute a person tied to a post (the intent of the user is to kill and the vulnerability of the victim is very high). When used in combat conditions, however, an AK47 is much less lethal, killing on average less than 20% of those it hits.

Similarly, a Taser electroshock device, now used by numerous police forces, was designed as a non-lethal weapon and is normally employed as such. However, if the user has malicious intent or is badly trained and/or if the victim is particularly vulnerable (e.g. suffering from an epileptic fit) it too can be lethal.

As a final example, the incapacitating agent pumped by Russian forces into the Moscow theatre on 26 October 2002 ended the siege but killed at least 129 of the 850 theatregoers. That’s upwards of a 15% lethality rate; comparable with that of an AK47 under combat conditions.

The point that I am trying to make here is that there is no such thing, per se, as a “non-lethal” weapon. All weapons can be lethal under certain conditions.

Another point that worried me was that participants in the meeting did not seem to draw a distinction between the domestic application of non-lethal force by police and its international application by soldiers. This is a crucial distinction. The Biological Weapons Convention prohibits biological and toxin weapons, even in incapacitating doses, being used anywhere, either in a domestic or international context.

The Chemical Weapons Convention, however, contains an exception that allows chemical agents such a tear gas to be used in domestic riot-control situations. It is therefore legal, under domestic law, for most police forces to fire tear gas to disperse angry crowds. It would be illegal, under international law, for a soldier to do so in war.

The reason for this counterintuitive distinction? In a word, escalation. Allowing chemical weapons, even tear gas, to be used in war could lead to an escalation in chemical warfare retaliation that would be as bad, or even worse, than that experienced during World War I.

With such things at stake, we really do need to have lawyers in the room as well.

Patrick Mc Carthy


Photo Credit: Timophoto on flickr.