Tear Gas Is A Banned Chemical Weapon, But US Lobbying Made It Okay For Domestic Use… And, Boy, Do We Use It

from the because-we-can dept

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.

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Comments on “Tear Gas Is A Banned Chemical Weapon, But US Lobbying Made It Okay For Domestic Use… And, Boy, Do We Use It”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Seems to be the same with our prison practices

In US prisons, we don’t even bat an eye to find out someone has been in solitary confinement for years. If we tried to treat a prisoner of war like we treat millions of current American Born Citizens, we would have worldwide riots against us. The War on Drugs always has been a sham and the curtain is all but torn to shreds, but hundreds of thousands of people are being prosecuted right now for non violent drug offenses.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Seems to be the same with our prison practices

Solitary confinement is very problematic and it isn’t only US having that badly overcrowded prisons.

When it comes to drugs it is ultimately a question of policy. “Legalize and tax it to hell” would seem more appealing than the current “encouragement to crime”, but it is an international issue. If some countries change a lot might follow. Netherlands has severely restricted hash trade since the outside pressure has been enormous.

Violynne (profile) says:

“Even as it’s been banned for use in war. Something seems… very, very wrong with this situation.”
I’m going to disagree with the assessment the article’s making, in that tear gas should be banned.

The fact this “study” keeps referring to CS as a gas is laughable. It’s an aerosol, designed to spread quickly and effectively.

The Geneva Convention has about as much as an influence in war as blue laws have on state residents.

Israel recently used it, yet I don’t see anyone complaining about the use there. Oh, I see, because they’re fighting terrorists that it makes it okay?


I own two canisters of the stuff myself, and you can bet if there’s a need for a quick way to subdue an intruder, they’ll quickly realize why I have it.

Most idiots think having a gun protects them. I’ll take my aerosol over a gun any day of the week, so think about the benefits in this term.

I’d trust my neighbor with CS more than I would with a 9mm.

AJ says:

Re: Re:

I like your style Violynne. I prefer the hand held tazer, because of it’s ease of deployment @ close range, however, the entertainment value of CS to the face would be a very close second.
I went through the “gas” chamber in basic training.. We had to go in “mopp” 4 and break/reseal our mask.. the brave ones took their masks off, took a few deep breaths and started blubbering like idiots pawing at their face for their troubles. If it wasn’t for the fact that my face was on fire and i couldn’t see through all the fluids pouring out of it, I would have been laughing my ass off…

Chronno S. Trigger (profile) says:

Re: Re:

So your counter argument to “we shouldn’t use tear gas on civilians” is “it’s not a gas it’s an aerosol”.

You would also rather have a can of tear gas going off in your house rather then properly knowing how to use a gun.

Something seems wrong with this, but I just can’t put my finger on it.


Re: It's a slow news day for someone.

People didn’t notice any Israeli use of tear gas because it is something that rarely ever gets objected to. Of all of the recent rants about riots or overhanded law enforcement, I think this is the first time I’ve heard anyone whine about tear gas. And still, this particular complaint is pretty obscure.

If you want to track the potential dangers of tear gas, try studying the health of Marines. They are all subjected to it in a confined space and Drill Instructors repeatedly so.

It certainly sucks to be on the receiving end of it, but it’s hardly a cause for hysterics.

Ninja (profile) says:

Re: Re: It's a slow news day for someone.

It all depends on how much you deploy and where you deploy. I tend to agree that it could be used depending on the situation but… With great power comes great responsibility and the Govt doesn’t seem to handle that power well.

As for Israel I’d say they are repeating what has been done to them. In a similar scale but with better marketing.

Josh in CharlotteNC (profile) says:

Re: Re: It's a slow news day for someone.

If you want to track the potential dangers of tear gas, try studying the health of Marines. They are all subjected to it in a confined space and Drill Instructors repeatedly so.

Your argument that tear gas is safe is that we study the effects of it on a single group of young adults known for their physical fitness?

Imagine this argument a few thousand years ago: “Don’t worry about getting stabbed with a sword, because all Spartan warriors can block a sword thrust with their shield.”

Go read what the scientist said: “especially in civilian exposure with kids or elderly or people in the street who might have some kind of lung disease already”.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: It's a slow news day for someone.

On Bloody Thursday, 1969, they gassed the entire neighborhood and put bunches of babies in the hospital.

This morning (Tuesday, August 19th 2014), way after the protesters were well dispersed, the bearcats just drove around arbitrarily lobbing gas shells into the neighborhoods…until they ran out, I guess.

This is how CS Gas is used by the police.

Roger Strong (profile) says:

Remember when...

Remember when Senate Republicans of the 111th Congress broke the record for the number of filibusters in a session? Remember how more than 137 times they held not just a city block but the very governing of the country hostage? Remember last year when Ted Cruz and friends managed to shut down much of the government, costing the economy several tens of billions of dollars?

Remember all those times when they got pepper sprayed and beaten up by riot police?

Me neither.

Remember all those times when Westboro Baptist Church protesters demonstrating at veterans’ funerals got pepper sprayed and beaten up by riot police?

Me neither.

If you can’t stop the police from being militarized, responding to protesters with tear gas and assault rifles, then let’s insist that they be consistent in using their toys against protesters across the political spectrum. Consistent regardless of how much political power the protesters have. And consistent with the amount of harm the protesters are doing.

I suspect they’d be demilitarized rather quickly.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Remember when...

Steal millions? Any proof on that or just want to generalize without any. For every crooked person on the right I will raise you one on the left…

Secondly, whether you (or I for that matter) like it or not, politics and partisanship are the way our government works. In other words–perfectly legal.

Last I saw, looting, rioting and shooting guns at the police were not. It is obvious just how much contempt for the law that you have since you are the one who brought up WBC. I forgot how people like you would conveniently eliminate a persons constitutional right to stop something they didn’t like. To enforce a law that actually exists–fugetaboutit

Try again?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Remember when...

Different argument Ninja. I was responding to the person equating a perfectly legal protest to what is currently happening in Ferguson.

I would even agree with you that the majority of people involved are not the problem however there are more than enough of them there for the sole purpose of escalating the violence to make it hard on everyone.

Roger Strong (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Remember when...

Yes. Perfectly legal. Right.

The police are notoriously good at finding something to charge someone with, when legally filming an incident, walking down the street, etc. When all else fails there’s always catch-all charges like “public mischief.”

When Ted Cruz shut down the government, costing tens of billions of dollars, for reasons that look so silly that even Ted Cruz immediately started denying responsibility, surely it’s at least as easy to find some law violated.

It should be easier than finding a reason to fire six rounds into someone – from a safe distance – for walking on the street. Easier than finding a reason to use lethal force against someone suspected of selling untaxed cigarettes.

Understand, I’m not saying that police should go out of their way to go full-Rambo on protesters. I’m just saying that they should be consistent regardless of social status. A high court / low court situation is bad enough without the developing high police / low police system developing.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Remember when...

I take great exception on this statement: “Secondly, whether you (or I for that matter) like it or not, politics and partisanship are the way our government works.”

Retort: What happened to “of the people, by the people, and FOR the people?” Has that changed to “whether the people like it or not?” And the last bit. You’re killing me here.

“government works.” When? And your turn to prove it, Monsieur Smartypants.

And This Statement:”In other words–perfectly legal.”

Retort:Perfectly legal? I doubt it. Perfectly honest? Definitely not. Perfectly corrupt? Almost absolutely. ( I say alomst because I imagine not everyone in Congress is total greaseball. Just 99%.

Have you never been able to put 2 + 2 together? We might not have proof of backroom deals because they were signed in BACK ROOMS.

Keep drinking the Koolaid.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Re: How it's supposed to work.

Here’s the thing.

And to be fair, I get the thing in this case from a roommate who was in the USMC on riot duty not long after the National Guard fucked up at Kent State.

If you’re going to build a line and wear riot armor, that makes you immune to rocks and even molotovs. And the USMC policy was to pretty much deflect and not respond and let the crowd do its crowd thing.

As for people with guns, that’s what the multiple observers and the sniper is for, like that guy with the fancy tripod mount that was pointing his gun menacingly at the peaceful protestors. If sniper ain’t gonna snipe, what’s he there for? Intimidation? A guy reveals a handgun, the spotters ID him, the sniper takes him out. The police show restraint. That is how it’s done, and if Ferguson did that they would have looked fucking professional, not like a bunch of drunk good-ol’-boys playing around with military hardware.

So even in when when riot patrols were dealing with anti-war cretins and communist pastards as flower-fucking hippies, they were capable of showing some restraint.

Ferguson police, in contrast, are looking for any little excuse to go full commando on them-there darkies. Because an unarmed black person is like poindextrose to a white St. Louis copper.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: How it's supposed to work.

While I agree with you on many aspects, the fact is that what you are saying about “any little excuse” is no longer relevant. It may have been initially but it has not been the case for several days. Many of the agitators want nothing more than for the city to burn. There are organizations like the Revolutionary Communist Party which are responsible for inciting much of the current violence. I don’t see things getting any better honestly.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Remember when...

Re:111th Cuntgress: Obstruction the highest of official processes in the interest of what? Themselves and their reach-a-round lobbyist buddies. They still got paycheck, too. With money from YOUR pocket. And they got a much larger haul than you could fit in 20 of the biggest Quick-E-Marts.


1: Keep everyone from getting work done.

2: Collect huge sums of money from the people you are doing it for.

3: Say you were taking a stand on “principles” (any principle will do. Kids, please don’t try to stand your principals.)

4: ??? (backroom deals.. hence the question marks)

5: Profit!

Ninja (profile) says:

This shit is incredibly aggressive. Get some of it in your eyes or inhale a tiny bit and you are in for a world of pain. Just being in an area where it was recently used is enough to make your eyes watery. My advice to Ferguson citizens is to keep tissues and vinegar at hand. And bottles of water as you get dehydrated. And make it collective, keep enough in your backpack to help you and others.

I’d say it’s better to use this in warfare than other worse chemicals but against citizens in a protest? Sadly I’ve seen it here as well.

Ninja (profile) says:


Hmm, I wonder. I got this tip from a fellow protester when things got awry. I don’t know what is the active chemical in teargas but maybe it reacts with acetic acid and gets neutralized? I never had to use this tool fortunately because the most I got was some residual teargas since I never got involved in the front lines. Granted that residual gas already irritates eyes and lungs enough but it was bearable. In any case people were using vinegar here.

Anonymous Coward says:


Dilute acetic acid could work on capsaicin, which is non-polar (hence water doesn’t help much[1]), but I’d be a little nervous about the vinegar itself doing damage. UHT milk would be safer, I think, although the smell would be an issue in warmer climes after a little while.

[1] and why Lister can destroy a vindaloo monster with a giant can of lager in Red Dwarf.

Avatar says:

Don’t be a tool. The Soviets didn’t have high humanitarian concerns when they complained about the use of tear gas – it’s simply not a tool that they needed in their arsenal, because they didn’t permit mass demonstrations in the first place. Soviet enforcement would have meant arresting as many of the participants as they could lay hands on, the families of any leadership, and either sentencing them to hard labor or summary execution.

Tear gas isn’t nice, no way. But it’s a lot less likely to result in actual deaths than a crowd charging a police line directly, which is a nervous trigger finger away from a literal massacre.

Anonymous Coward says:

I think if you have a whole bunch of veterans who just came back from a combat zone and make them police (support the vets!) you end up with a lot of police who think what they did in Kabul is OK here. They started when they were 18 folks, they have been indoctrinated into something that isn’t what the USA is about.

I will tell you that I am increasingly afraid about our rights and our Constitution overall. It just doesn’t seem to be the same bulwark for our freedoms it once was. There seems to be an increasing ability of Government, at all levels, to intrude on our lives, without any consequence.

I’m appalled for those that courageously gave their lives for tne freedoms we enjoy. The didn’t give their lives for this…

Case says:


Even as it’s been banned for use in war. Something seems… very, very wrong with this situation.

Riiight…militarized police is bad, calling it “the war on X” is bad, but the laws of warfare should apply to police actions? Apart from setting a rather strange tone, here are some other things which would be banned:
– Expanding ammunition (allegedly hunters also use that, where is the UN?!)
– Plainclothes officers
– Punishing people for killing cops. Since killing is part of war, you can’t hold POWs responsible for doing their share, they merely are detained until the hostilities seize
– …well, unless they are irregulars. Resisting police without wearing a proper uniform is clearly a war crime

On the other hand, a few things would be allowed…like “acceptable” civilian losses, or blowing up a suspects car without giving him the chance to be arrested. Actually, not even suspects. As long as you are part of the opposing force, that is all the reason needed to shoot you or take you POW — sounds like just the kind of behavior I’d want from police…

Policing is not warfare, this distinction cuts both ways.

Case says:

Re: Bullshit

Oh, and by the way: The ban or tear gas in warfare goes back to the Geneva Protocol on “the Prohibition of the Use of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare” from 1925. The name as well as the fact that tear gas is still used worldwide for law enforcement and self-defense should give you a hint what the world thinks of your armchair lawyering.

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