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12 April 2001 Edition

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New plastic bullet is more lethal


Following the British government's decision to retain the use of plastic bullets in the Six Counties, its claim that a newer version of the weapon will be safer has been undermined by an internal report.

``The severity of injuries to the brain is likely to be greater with the L21A1, due to the higher pressures on the brain, and greater penetration of the projectile ... If the L21A1 does contact the head, and if it strikes perpendicular to the skull (head on), there is a risk that the projectile will be retained in the head.''
In making the announcement in the House of Commons on 2 April, British Home Secretary Jack Straw claimed that the new round, the L21A1, will decrease the possibility of serious injury or death because it is more accurate. Ludicrously, he maintained that the ``new round, like the old will be used ... only in accordance with the existing strict guidelines''. He also stated that ``revised guidelines for the use of baton rounds in situations of public disorder'' apply ``in the same terms in England, Wales and Northern Ireland'', when plastic bullets are only ever used in the Six Counties and then overwhelmingly against the nationalist population.

However, the government-commissioned report on which Straw based his comments does not support his claims of greater safety and reduction of injuries. Indeed, it concludes that the new bullet (which will replace the present L5A7 round), partly because of this greater accuracy, is likely to actually increase the number of ``intra-abdominal'' injuries as well as cause even greater damage if fired - as has so often happened in the past - directly at the head.

The Defence Scientific Advisory Council (DSAC), which produced the report, says that, although the L21A1 baton round (on which comparative testing of the ``biomechanical response of the body to impact by different projectiles'' was carried out) has been designed to ``increase the accuracy of the baton system, reduce the variability in muzzle velocity and dispersion of rounds at all ranges'', it can only be ``assumed'' to cause fewer injuries if used very strictly in accordance with guidelines, and even then the probability of injuries arising out of ricochet ``will be higher''. Contrary to Jack Straw's assertions, the willingness of both the RUC and the army to routinely breach such guidelines, with tragic and often fatal consequences, has been well documented.

The DSAC report also notes that to ``achieve the improvement in ballistic performance the L21A1 differs in mass, velocity, shape and material from the L5A7. It is lighter, faster, aerodynamically shaped and manufactured from a stiffer material''. This will mean, the report concludes, that: ``The severity of injuries to the brain is likely to be greater with the L21A1, due to the higher pressures on the brain, and greater penetration of the projectile ... If the L21A1 does contact the head, and if it strikes perpendicular to the skull (head on), there is a risk that the projectile will be retained in the head. For glancing blows, there is not likely to be a difference in this respect between the L5A7 and the L21A1''. In other words, both types are likely to kill people but the new baton could do it in an even more gruesome fashion.

In its summary, the DSAC says: ``The use of the L21A1 according to the Association of Chief Police Officers and MoD policy is likely to increase the incidence of injuries that are not life-threatening, such as soft tissue contusions and simple bone fractures in limbs''. It goes on to say that ``the consequences of an impact to the head will be more serious with the L21A1, but this is offset by a reduced risk of striking the head, both of the intended target and of bystanders'', a theoretical reduction of risk which is wholly dependent on the Ôproper' use of the device by the RUC and army.

This announcement comes despite the fact both the Good Friday Agreement and the Patten Report envisaged an end to the use of plastic bullets altogether. In response, Labour MP Kevin McNamara has tabled a number of questions in relation to the new type of bullet. He denounced the development, calling plastic bullets an ``unstable weapon of death'' with the potential, realised on many occasions, to kill children. He criticised the Ministry of Defence for ``defying the recommendations of Patten and pushing ahead with a secret plan to re-equip the army and police in Northern Ireland with a new generation of deadly plastic bullets.''

The United Campaign Against Plastic Bullets on Tuesday 10 April said they were ``astounded'' by the announcement. ``It is recognised that plastic bullets breach international standards on human rights.'' They went on. ``They are considered both a lethal weapon and a weapon of torture. John Reid like his predecessors has paved the way for the continued use of plastic bullets for the foreseeable future. It is absolutely incredible that this is happening at a time when we are being asked to support new policing structures. In this context the British government are yet again out of step with upholding and implementing international standards on human rights. The British government has missed an opportunity to eradicate plastic bullets.

``We find it ironic that in a time of peace building and when we hear daily of the British government demanding decommissioning that they are equally and vigorously engaged in designing a new weapon to fire at civilians.''

After attending a press conference called by the Relatives for Justice group to protest at the use of plastic bullets, Sinn Fein's Pat Doherty commented that ``Whatever spin the British government and its security agencies put on this bullet the reality is that it will kill people, and our experience in the north of Ireland over 30 years is that the most likely victims will be children.

``It is a fact that 17 people, mainly children, have been killed by this weapon. Hundreds more have been seriously and in many cases permanently maimed by this weapon.Current British government claims that because no one has been killed since 1989 that plastic bullets are now somehow more acceptable are spurious and irresponsible.

``In the last five years alone, one Belfast law firm has secured over £2 million in compensation for people injured by these weapons. The figure for the 12 years since 1989 must therefore run into many millions. This is clear evidence of the deadly nature of these weapons and of their use by the RUC.

``There is no other solution to the controversy surrounding these weapons than for them to be withdrawn from use.''

The Pat Finucane Centre, which has also campaigned for an end to the use of plastic bullets, said: ``The only basis for the government claim that the new plastic bullet would lead to fewer serious injuries or even fatalities is the spurious claim that it is more accurate and that firers would not aim at the upper body as per regulations. There is abundant evidence over the years that plastic bullets are deliberately fired at the upper body''. The PFC goes on: ``Given that the new projectile is considerably more lethal, advice is now being sought on possible legal action against government, ministers, senior RUC management and members of any future Police Board which authorises the purchase, deployment and use of the L21A1''.

In responding to the criticism, the Secretary of State, John Reid, had predictably tried to shift the blame for the damage caused by the use and misuse of plastic bullets away from the perpetrators and onto the victims, saying: ``The government would be delighted if the public order situation improved sufficiently to remove the need to resort to baton rounds at all. The whole community has a contribution to make to achieve that aim but sadly we are not there yet.''

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