Tear Gas Is Banned in International Warfare––Why Are Police Using It On U.S. Civilians?

Police say they’re using tear gas to clear crowds, but the chemical agent’s effects can cause long-term physical damage.

Janea Wilson June 4, 2020

Protests turned violent in Santa Monica, Calif., on May 31, after police officers attack demonstrators with tear gas in the aftermath of the police murder of George Floyd. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

On June 2, Pres­i­dent Trump threat­ened to deploy mil­i­tary troops against Amer­i­cans in response to nation­wide protests after the recent mur­der of George Floyd in Min­neapo­lis. Trump’s sug­ges­tion to use mil­i­tary force against U.S. civil­ians shocked many — but in fact police already have been using a weapon banned in inter­na­tion­al war­fare against pro­test­ers: tear gas.

Under Article II Section 9 of the treaty, however, chemical agents used for “domestic riot control purposes” by law enforcement are not prohibited.

Across the coun­try, police offi­cers have tear-gassed pro­test­ers in attempts to clear out crowds. While U.S. offi­cials have a his­to­ry of using tear gas as a riot con­trol agent” (defined by the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion (CDC) as chem­i­cal com­pounds that tem­porar­i­ly make peo­ple unable to func­tion by caus­ing irri­ta­tion to the eyes, mouth, throat, lungs and skin”), tear gas was banned in inter­na­tion­al war­fare through the Chem­i­cal Weapons Con­ven­tion in 1997.

The Con­ven­tion is a treaty that 193 nation-states are par­ty to through the Organ­i­sa­tion for the Pro­hi­bi­tion of Chem­i­cal Weapons (OPCW) head­quar­tered in the Nether­lands. The treaty’s pur­pose was to elim­i­nate weapons of mass destruc­tion in inter­na­tion­al war­fare by pro­hibit­ing the pro­duc­tion, stock­pil­ing and use of chem­i­cal weapons, defined by the OPCW as a chem­i­cal used to cause inten­tion­al death or harm through its tox­ic prop­er­ties.” Tear gas irri­tates the res­pi­ra­to­ry sys­tem, skin and eyes, which can lead to loss of eye­sight and breath­ing prob­lems, clas­si­fy­ing it as a chem­i­cal weapon if used to inten­tion­al­ly cause harm or death (such as when it was used dur­ing World War I).

Under Arti­cle II Sec­tion 9 of the treaty, how­ev­er, chem­i­cal agents used for domes­tic riot con­trol pur­pos­es” by law enforce­ment are not pro­hib­it­ed. Because U.S. law enforce­ment claims to use tear gas as a method to clear crowds, rather than to cause inten­tion­al death or harm,” it has been used wide­ly by police offi­cers across the country.

Aside from inter­na­tion­al reg­u­la­tions that lim­it tear gas use in war­fare, the Unit­ed States has no reg­u­la­tions on the use of tear gas domes­ti­cal­ly, nor does it require train­ing for offi­cers who do use it.

The CDC reports that pro­longed expo­sure [to tear gas], espe­cial­ly in an enclosed area, may lead to long-term effects such as eye prob­lems includ­ing scar­ring, glau­co­ma and cataracts, and may pos­si­bly cause breath­ing prob­lems such as asth­ma.” ProP­ub­li­ca also reports that the chem­i­cal may make peo­ple more sus­cep­ti­ble to con­tract­ing influen­za, pneu­mo­nia and oth­er illnesses.”

Despite these risks, on Mon­day night fed­er­al law enforce­ment offi­cers tear-gassed peace­ful pro­test­ers in front of a church in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., to make way for the president’s pho­to-op. The White House has since claimed that a pep­per irri­tant” was used rather than tear gas; yet the CDC still defines the irri­tant as a type of tear gas because of the phys­i­cal dam­age it can cause. As we enter day 10 of protests against police vio­lence, and despite first-amend­ment rights to peace­ful­ly gath­er, tear gas con­tin­ues to be used on protesters.

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