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21 June 2001 Edition

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New move against plastic bullets

BY LAURA FRIEL

Relatives and campaigners against the use of plastic bullets are seeking a judicial review of the British government's decision to introduce a new, even more lethal plastic bullet in the Six Counties. A High Court application will be lodged within the next two weeks in the name of Jim McCabe, whose wife Nora was killed by a plastic bullet in 1981.

Clara Reilly of the United Campaign Against Plastic Bullets said her group was seeking the review because the British government's own data showed that the new bullet was even more deadly than the previous one. Legal action against the manufacturers and suppliers of the bullets was also being actively considered, said Reilly.

``According to the MoD's own report, if a person is hit head on at 30 metres with the new bullet, which travels at a speed of 164mph, the projectile could lodge in the skull and cause more serious damage than would even be the case of the old bullets,'' she said.

``A plastic bullet with an impact of 122 joules of kinetic energy is considered a lethal weapon by the United States' own military scientists. The new bullet has an impact energy of 244 joules. It's a lethal weapon by every measurement.''

Speaking at a recent conference on plastic bullets and other so-called non lethal weaponry, Professor Colin Harvey, from the Law Department of the University of Leeds, said the May ruling by the European Court of Human Rights in favour of the families of IRA members killed by British forces could have implications for the families of the 14 people killed by plastic bullets.

 

MAKING A KILLING



The citizen, the arms trade and policing



BY LAURA FRIEL

Truth is often stranger than fiction, and when it comes to the international arms trade and the development of so-called non lethal weaponry, it's not only stranger, it's frightening and sinister.

Dr Steve Wright of the Omega Foundation, an organisation which monitors the international arms trade from a human rights perspective, travelled to Belfast last week to address a conference on the deployment of the new plastic bullet in the north of Ireland.

Confirming our worse fears about the greater danger presented by the newly developed L21A1 plastic bullet weapon, Wright described its recent deployment as a ``cynical exercise'' by the British government and military.

The new plastic bullet travels faster, hits harder, penetrates deeper and even the British government's own scientific Advisory Council admits it will cause more frequent and greater injury.

In fact, the only enhanced ``safety'' aspect of the new weapon lies in a promised reduction in breech or misfires, which in the past have injured RUC officers discharging the weapon.

Ironically, it is exactly these aspects of the new plastic bullet weapon which render it safer to use by the RUC that increase its potential to inflict a greater number and more serious injury on the unfortunate civilians being targeted.

And according to Wright, since the ending of the Cold War civilians are increasingly the intended target when it comes to the development and deployment of new, so-called non lethal weaponry, of which the plastic bullet is but one. ``It's all about business and maintaining the status quo,'' says Wright.

Civilians, especially dissenting civilians, are being identified as the new threat by the US military and an international arms industry determined not to allow the collapse of the USSR deplete its potential for making a killing, in the monetary sense of course.

Apparently Science Fiction writers and Disney `imaginers' are helping to turn fantasy into fact, play into power and fun into force. And perception is the name of the game. It matters less that so-called non lethal weapons maim and kill than the public perception of them as an ``acceptable'' alternative to conventional weaponry.

Obviously this is particularly important when their intended target is the unarmed civilian protester rather than an armed and trained military opponent. No wonder the illusionists and image makers are playing a key role in the development of these media friendly but deceptively lethal alternatives - weaponry that can inflict serious injury without too much mangled flesh and gore for the photographers to capture. ``Injury has to be internal,'' says Wright. ``External injuries look too bad on television.''

And according to Wright, the RUC are at the core of international military and paramilitary police force networking in the development of these deadly, antidemocratic weapons of mass intimidation and collective punishment. ``The more legitimacy a state loses,'' says Wright, ``the more it relies on violent repression.''

The non lethal status of these new weapons relies partly on public perception and partly on an assumption of self preservation. For example, protesters confronted by a pepper repellent, now being constructed not as a handheld person to person deterrent but along the lines of a water cannon, will be able to run away and avoid a lethal dosage, it is claimed.

The new weaponry is presented to the public as scientifically safer but its so-called safety is dependent on the assumed reaction of the victim rather than the technology itself. Alternatively, as with the case of the new plastic bullet, the non lethal status relies not on the technology, that's lethal, nor the reaction of the victim but on the willingness and ability of the RUC officer discharging the weapon to adhere to the guidelines.

The new plastic bullet should be fired at the range of no less and no more than 30 metres at belt height. In the hands of a sectarian and hostile force like the RUC and British Army, it would be foolish to assume these guidelines will be anything more than a mockery.

Furthermore, the choice of a 30-metre guideline range has nothing to do with the projected deployment requirements of the weapon and more to do with the fact that research data on other ranges exposed the true nature of this deadly weapon. Initial experiments were conducted at a range of one metre but proved too sensitive to publish.

Porton Down, the British military research centre, conducted four separate studies before establishing an optimum set of results which satisfactorily masked the lethal capabilities of the new plastic bullet weapon. ``Belt height sounds like child head height to me,'' says Wright.

Significantly, the British military's experiments were conducted with the aid of computer graphic projections rather then being tested on animals or animal carcasses. Apparently, the shooting of British animals would have been too sensitive for the animal welfare lobby.

As in the past, the north of Ireland is set to provide the real laboratory for testing the potential of this weapon. ``If this weapon can be successfully challenged here,'' says Wright, ``its global deployment can be curtailed.''

And as well as the new plastic bullet, there's a whole array of possibilities just waiting in the wings. By failing to call for the banning of the plastic bullet and tamely calling for the development of alternatives, the Patten Report on policing in the Six Counties has set the scene for the deployment of a wider range of equipment, warns Wright.

And there's plenty on offer. Chemical weapons like pepper spray cannons for crowd dispersal, glue guns to immobilise, radio frequency weapons, taser weapons which turn your insides to jelly, microwaves that fry you from the inside, lazers to dazzle, freezer rays to paralyse, sticky foams and nets to capture. And if that doesn't sound like enough, there the possibility of developing satellite controlled directed energy weapons. ``Star wars for humans,'' says Wright.

``During the development of sticky foam,'' says Wright, ``one of the inventors testing the material suffocated and died.'' And there is no independent testing. No way of establishing, except in the field, the real dangers posed by this weaponry. ``Companies are developing weapons the military don't even know they need yet,'' says Wright.

Conventional weapons, like aircraft, gunships, tanks and missiles, require a budget that only government sponsorship can provide but the relatively cheap development of non lethal weaponry can be met within existing military budgets. In other words, the development and deployment of this anti-civilian weaponry is beyond even the minimal mechanism of political control.

``We call these pre lethal rather than non lethal weapons,'' says Wright. There are no guarantees when it comes to deployment. A weapon designed to immobilise is just as likely to be a prelude to murder as detention.

In Rwanda, Wright points out, civilians were routinely hamstrung as a prelude to being killed. By severing their Achilles tendons, the victims were immobilised, allowing the killers to pace the massacre to suit their own needs to sleep and eat. It's a chilling example of the lethal potential even the most seemingly innocuous of these weapons presents.

According to Wright, patrolling borders is likely to become increasingly mechanised. Border patrols of robots that shoot on sight, or track and hunt in packs, mines that trigger nets or glue or repellents. It's all there in various stages of development. A robotic patrol vehicle armed with a machine gun is already being shown at international arms fairs.

Yet, despite his evaluation, Wright remains optimistic about the ability of ordinary people to expose the unacceptable nature of this weaponry and campaign against its deployment. There are two mechanisms envisaged by Wright. First, contesting the weaponry against existing human rights legislation, and second, establishing the right to independent testing.

Companies developing this weaponry may be more cautious if they thought, like the Tobacco Companies, they might be held financially accountable, suggests Wright. Referring to the North of Ireland, Wright told the audience, ``this is where it began, this has been the engine and it has to be stopped here.''

Meanwhile, an RUC spokesperson has confirmed that a number of high ranking RUC officers have visited a top secret US Marine base in Quantico, Alexandria, Virginia. It is understood that senior members of the RUC have attended at least six secret meetings with US arms manufacturers. The meetings have taken place within the last three years in Farnborough, San Antonio, Quantico and London.

The spokesperson refused to confirm that the RUC had been involved in test firing laser guns, which hit a standing target with 50,000 volts, and are currently banned under section 5 of the Firearms Act in Britain. The RUC have already discussed buying a remote control robot which fires plastic bullets.

The laser gun is designed when fired to stop a person's nervous system from holding up the skeleton. Its safety is already under question after a woman hit with a laser gun later suffered a miscarriage. The weapon has never been tested on a cross section of people, which would include women, chidren and elderly.

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