Government Use of Tear Gas Is Illegal in War. It Should Be Illegal Here, Too.

UPDATE 1/2/2018: The U.S. Border Patrol fired tear gas into Mexico for a second time on Tuesday morning in an effort to stop a group of about 150 migrants who were attempting to cross into the United States.

This piece originally appeared at The Washington Post's PostEverything

Pictures of migrant women and children fleeing in panic as tear gas canisters were fired at them by U.S. border agents this week shocked many Americans, but the Trump administration praised the Border Patrol for responding “admirably and responsibly” in deploying the “accepted use of nonlethal force.”

But using tear gas on a crowd of unarmed, largely peaceful migrants, including children, is far from “accepted.” Under international human rights law, U.S. border officials may use force only when necessary, and the force used must be proportionate to the seriousness of the offense and the legitimate objective to be achieved — when it is necessary to maintain order and protect lives. By the Border Patrol’s own unverified account, only four of its agents were hit by rocks or other projectiles, and their protective gear ensured that they were not injured. That clearly doesn’t justify hurling Triple-Chaser tear gas grenades against a crowd of a few hundred largely peaceful men, women, and children.

And while tear gas has been outlawed as a method of warfare on the battlefield by almost every country in the world, that prohibition does not apply to domestic law enforcement officers using tear gas on their own citizens. Unfortunately, U.S. law enforcement personnel use tear gas all too often against peaceful crowds.

The use of this chemical agent, which can cause physical injury, permanent disability, and even death, is often excessive, indiscriminate, and in violation of civil and human rights. Studies suggest that children are more vulnerable to severe injuries from chemical toxicity: Infants exposed to tear gas can develop severe pneumonitis and require weeks of hospitalization. Using it on a crowd of people who were exercising their right to seek asylum at an international border indeed violated human rights norms; using it on a crowd of U.S. citizens engaged in protest is more common and also fraught.

The first reported domestic use of tear gas was during the 1935 timber workers strike when the National Guard used tear gas against picketers in Tacoma, Washington. During the civil rights movement, the use of tear gas — along with police dogs, fire hoses, whips, and nightsticks — by law enforcement officers against peaceful protesters helped rouse Americans’ sympathies for the demonstrators.

In the 1980s, as international negotiators were drafting an international convention to ban chemical weapons, there were heated debates about the use of tear gas by law enforcement — and calls for its use to be banned. Eventually, negotiators reached a compromise. The Chemical Weapons Convention, which was opened for signature on Jan. 13, 1993, and entered into force on April 29, 1997, banned tear gas (“riot control agents”) as a method of warfare but permitted its use in law enforcement, a decision that has been controversial ever since.

During protests in Ferguson, Missouri, following the police shooting of Michael Brown, police fired tear gas into people’s backyards and set it off near children. Protester Tory Russell was tear gassed over several days in Ferguson, causing him to panic and choke as he struggled to breathe. Russell described the experience to the BBC: “You no longer feel American.” One day during protests, when police fired tear gas into a crowd, people ran into a nearby coffee shop that filled with gas, creating a toxic environment in a confined space. Several sued and reached a settlement with Missouri law enforcement agencies to give proper warnings, adhere to minimum force guidelines, and refrain from using tear gas against lawful protesters.

Over the past several years, the ACLU has filed lawsuits challenging unconstitutional excessive use of force, including tear gas, to disperse peaceful protesters. As one lawsuit in Arizona charged, officers at an anti-Trump rally fired more than 590 projectiles “indiscriminately” into a crowd that “included children, elderly people, disabled people, and pregnant women.” A Phoenix police internal investigation noted that there was a 17-minute gap between when police began deploying smoke, pepper balls, and tear gas on the crowd and the first time officers made a widespread warning to disperse.

Another suit by the ACLU of Utah alleged that correctional officers fired tear gas inside the Utah State Prison after an inmate refused to return to his cell. The gas then traveled through air vents into the cells of other inmates, who suffered burning eyes, lungs, and skin. According to the complaint, prisoners, many of whom thought the jail was on fire, began “desperately trying to get the attention of prison officials by, among other things, kicking, screaming, and repeatedly pressing their emergency response buttons.” They were ignored and left in their cells for 20 to 30 minutes. (An official with the Utah Department of Corrections told the Salt Lake Tribune that tear gas is used infrequently at the prison.)

Not every use of tear gas by police is illegal. But it’s an indiscriminate weapon: Tear gas cannot distinguish between the young and the elderly, the healthy and the sick, the peaceful and the violent; it cannot tell whether a person is an unarmed rallygoer or a curious bystander. That is why it is rarely appropriate to use against protesters, and why its use should be regulated.

The United States has no specific rules regarding tear gas and requires no particular training for its use. When law enforcement officers do use tear gas, they should give clear and easily audible warnings beforehand, ensure that anyone who is not violent is far enough away to be unaffected, and provide prompt medical attention to everyone — violent or not — who is affected.

In a 2016 report on the health consequences of crowd-control weapons, the International Network of Civil Liberties Organizations and Physicians for Human Rights urged law enforcement when using tear gas to exercise special caution to stop the effects from spreading to unintended targets and bystanders and to minimize the risk of overexposure, which causes increased risk of injury. Law enforcement agencies must not exceed the minimum amount of chemical irritant necessary to achieve the effect of irritation and transient incapacitation. Higher concentrations of chemical irritants, which could easily be achieved by firing multiple canisters in the same spot or repeatedly, could cause serious injury or even death and must be avoided. Firing grenades or canisters containing chemical irritants into closed spaces or open space where there is no safe egress should be prohibited, as this significantly increases the gas’s risks.

Contextual factors must always be considered before deploying indiscriminate chemical irritants (the geographical nature of the deployment site, wind patterns, or the existence of hospitals, schools, or dense, uninvolved populations in the vicinity). Firing gas canisters or grenades directly into a crowd or toward individuals must be prohibited.

The use of tear gas against unarmed people fleeing violence in one country — many of them seeking asylum — is cruel and inhumane; it violates U.S. international human rights obligations. By using tear gas against them, our government mocks our obligation to protect the world’s most vulnerable. But the United States needs to rethink how it deploys chemical weapons against its own people, too, especially those who are exercising their right to protest.

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Anonymous

Warfare. Use of tear gas in warfare (as with all other chemical weapons,) is prohibited by various international treaties that most states have signed. Police and private self-defense use is not banned in the same manner. Armed forces can legally use tear gas for drills (practicing with gas masks) and for riot control.

Michele

Wasn’t tear gas lobbed at migrants who were still in the Mexico side of the border? Doesn’t this mean the US used an illegal weapon of war on foreign soil against non-US citizens? This doesn’t fall under the umbrella of use on its own citizens on domestic soil. It sounds like a war crime.

Anonymous

The previous administration used tear gas at the border dozens of times with zero minutes of coverage from NBC, ABC, and CBS. How much hypocrisy does it take to wake people up to this propaganda?

Jay

CS gas also known as tear gas is not illegal to use at all! It's been used by military and police for years!
I first had had training were we where put into a gas chamber full of CS gas. It's not harmful. It just burns alot and stop you in your tracks. Other nation part of the UN and NATO use CS gas. The Geneva convention does not forbid the use of CS gas. So how is this Illegal? It not, please stop post articles that you know nothing about!

Anonymous

If American Citizens behaved like these illegal aliens, tear gas would be deployed and arrests made appropriately. This is not an unusual response for crowd control. I would ask what kind of parent puts their own children in harms way as they did at the border. Did it ever occur to you that if it were an American Citizen, children would be removed and the parents likely charged with abuse/neglect. Why do you excuse this behavior on our law enforcement and military? You do illegal aliens no favors and contribute to the continue divide in this country. We are not a racist country and welcome LEGAL immigrants, more than any other countries combined in the world. You know that you have become a vehicle for the left to push their progressive agenda. Power at all cost, right? The ACLU continues to confirm by its actions that it no longer stands for individual rights and liberties guaranteed by the Constitution and laws of the United States. You are solely fighting for illegal aliens, at all cost. If truly concerned about the migrants, you would be appalled by the lawlessness and assaults confirmed at the boarder by those who rushed CBP and our military. In fact, the ACLU can do both if you are honest about the situation, you can support the migrants while at the same time denouncing the criminal actions by illegal aliens such as what happened at the border. Try truth for a change.

Anonymous

Tear gas was used in the administration of President Jimmy Carter. He is hearalded for his humane actions worldwide.
Get a life people.

Anonymous

It's banned in war because of the escalation effect.

You use tear gas, the other guy uses mustard, you use cyanide, the other guy uses ricin.

I am really sick of this "well it's banned in war" bull.

You have to make it all illegal or else it gets out of hand. As WW1 showed.

Stop lying ACLU. You're fking lawyers. You should know the reason.

Ron Schmidt

Once upon a time, the United States was a beacon of hope to the oppressed peoples of the world.
Tired, poor huddled masses yearning to be free answered the call of Lady Liberty. Alas, she is scarcely recognizable now and no longer extends the invitation. This government has violated its once exalted purpose. Current leadership has retracted the promise.

Anonymous

chemical warfare has been used in a case where local government wanted to acquire a citizens property to make one of their group's illegal redevelopment compliant to State building code. Without the acquiring of the neighbors property he could have never gotten his illegal redevelopment, with noncompliant building permits issued by the city, recorded on the county plat map. The chemical poisoning was intentional and it took over 5 years when I chose to flee from my home, business and property. It was unbearable to wear clothes, I was blind, I was homeless the next 4 years. Using chemicals as a weapon unlawfully applied to my property is criminal. To do this for over 5 years is terrorism.

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