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17 April 2003 Edition

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Dickson 'disturbed' but still no plastic bullet ban

BY LAURA FRIEL


     
The 'improved' L21A1 had been developed because its predecessor had a history of misfiring and injuring the RUC officer discharging the weapon. There was never any question of making the weapon safer for those unfortunate enough to be targeted
Brice Dickson, head of the Human Rights Commission is "concerned" and "disturbed" by evidence presented by the independent Omega Group, which shows that the recently deployed new plastic bullet (L21A1) is even more dangerous than its predecessor. Commenting on the recently published report, Dickson called for the British government to "step up its search for a safe alternative and to set itself a time limit for withdrawing the baton round".

But the question remains. Why wasn't Brice Dickson equally "concerned" and "disturbed" at the time of their deployment two years ago? Even the British military's own scientific tests contradicted their government's claim that the new L21A1 plastic bullet was 'safer' for anyone other than the RUC/PSNI officer discharging the weapon.

Two years ago, the British government's own research showed that the new plastic bullet travelled faster, hit harder and penetrated deeper. In terms of the weapon's deployment, the scientists predicted that it would result in more injuries, more serious injuries, greater internal injuries and more fatal head injuries.

Two years ago An Phoblacht, amongst others, challenged non-specific safety claims about the newly developed L21A1 by the then British Home Secretary Jack Straw, who had defied international pressure to ban the use of plastic bullets outright.

We'd posed the question, safer for whom? And given the information available, it wasn't so hard to work out. The spurious basis upon which Jack Straw hoped to sell the idea of a 'safer' plastic bullet was underpinned by a totally cynical manipulation of the facts. The 'improved' L21A1 had been developed because its predecessor had a history of misfiring and injuring the RUC officer discharging the weapon.

There was never any question of making the weapon safer for those unfortunate enough to be targeted. Their injuries, their untimely and often horrific deaths, were not the impetus behind the new weapon's development.

Indeed, the British scientists involved in testing the L21A1 admitted injuries and fatalities amongst those targeted would dramatically increase. The bullet's greater density and velocity diminished the risk of misfiring and breach firing but it greatly increased the risk of death and injury on impact.

Over a year ago, the renowned Omega Foundation, whose scientific experts monitor the international arms trade and weapons development from a human rights perspective, warned that the British government was suppressing vital evidence which exposed the lethal potential of the new L21A1.

A year ago, a respected ballistics expert, Neil Corney, who has carried out research for the European Parliament and European Commission for Human Rights, exposed the fact that an appendix which detailed the dangerous ricochet effects of the new L21A1 had been suppressed by the British MoD.

And the incidence of ricochets is hardly insignificant. About 20% of all new plastic bullets discharged missed their target and were subject to ricochet. So evidence about the impact of every one in five plastic bullets was considered so politically detrimental to the deployment of the L21A1 that it was withheld by the MoD.

Professor Dickson is an educated man with a string of qualifications to his name and all the resources of the Human Rights Commission at his command. So if two years ago, An Phoblacht was able to access and study reports compiled by the British government's own military and scientific experts on the development and deployment of the new plastic bullet, why didn't Brice Dickson? And if he did, why has it taken another study and many plastic bullet injuries later for him to become "disturbed" and "concerned"?

On impact, 27-year-old mother Therese Quinn collapsed to the ground. As the plastic bullet smashed into her right arm, it fragmented the elbow and broke bones in both her upper and lower limb. Blood poured from the open wound and the woman was stricken with pain and panic.

Someone carried the injured woman to a nearby house and neighbours fetched a local nurse while waiting for an ambulance. The nurse held the woman's elbow together, raising the limb in an attempt to stop the bleeding but it did not stop.

At the hospital, despite the fact the injury required surgery to reconstruct the shattered elbow, surgeons were unable to operate because of persistent bleeding. The woman was still bleeding three days later.

Temporarily discharged from hospital, Therese's arm was encased in plaster, while she waited for reconstructive surgery at a later date. A week after her injury, she was still suffering from persistent nausea and intermittent vomiting. She required morphine to ease the severe pain in her arm.

This is the account of just one of the victims of the new plastic bullet. The injured woman had not been rioting or engaging in any kind of confrontation. The street was quiet but busy with women collecting their children from school. When British soldiers appeared to be preparing to open fire, the woman had told two children, aged ten and eight, to take cover in a nearby garden. Moments later she was shot.

     
The real challenge remains the establishment of proper policing practices that render the use of such weaponry null and void
Unlike the PSNI, the British Army is not subject to even the minimal accountability of the Police Ombudsman's Office. Until recently, the British Army had refused to publish its own guidelines, making any legal challenge to their actions virtually impossible. The British soldier who injured Therese Quinn will never be asked to account for his actions. He is subject to no disciplinary action, either within or outside the British Army. His identity remains unknown.

When Brice Dickson was asked by a delegation from Relatives for Justice and the United Campaign against Plastic Bullets why he would not endorse the call for an immediate and outright ban of this weapon, Dickson replied that RUC/PSNI officers and presumably British soldiers had "human rights too".

No one is suggesting that the British soldier who fired the plastic bullet at Therese Quinn does not have human rights. The question is, does his victim?

Many people within the nationalist and republican community have seen the commissioning of a report as a stalling tactic with allows Brice Dickson to ensure the status quo while demonstrating his "concern". Indeed, the publication of the report appears to have done nothing towards persuading the Human Rights Commissioner of the inadequacy of his stance.

But this cannot take away the very real contribution the Omega report makes to the campaign to remove this kind of weaponry both from streets in the north of Ireland and throughout the world.

Omega reiterates many of the concerns already raise by victims and human rights groups, citing the inherently lethal nature of the technology, flaws within official scientific testing techniques, the gap between laboratory controlled experiment and the actuality of deployment in the field.

Omega also raises the issue of suppressed detrimental evidence, the inadequacy of the guidelines, the lack of proper accountability and the failure to adhere to international standards and domestic recommendations.

What Omega brings to the debate is a much wider knowledge and experience of the development and deployment of 'alternative' weaponry categorised as 'less lethal' than conventional arms and currently being considered as a means of replacing the plastic bullet.

It is not without its own irony that at a time when the possible possession of chemical weapons is being used as a justification for invading Iraq, British government officials are considering the development of chemical weapons as a means of civilian crowd control.

A Steering Group led by the NIO was set up by the British government in July 2000 following recommendations by Patten to replace plastic bullets with a 'safer' alternative.

But as Omega points out, "if the Patten Report recommendations had been taken seriously, the research into alternatives and new technologies would be a truly independent effort - rather than the 'internal' Steering Group with little independent input that has been set up".

Omega warns that any selection and testing process that is less than rigorous "could allow the deployment of dubious technologies" that would have consequences far beyond the Six Counties.

The report continues: "While some commentators have dismissed the idea that the Northern Ireland conflict over the 30 years has become a laboratory for filed testing new public order strategies and technologies, the fact is inescapable that less-lethal weapons like the rubber bullet first deployed in Northern Ireland in 1970, have now proliferated all over the world."

Omega points out that the Steering Group is not working in a political vacuum but has enlisted the help of the Association of Chief Police Officers, closely liasing with the US Joint Non-lethal Weapons Directorate.

"What is missing from this process of evaluating weapons is involvement from the public, victims and human rights groups," says Omega. "The authorities are failing to fully engage with, and use the knowledge and experience of, these groups."

One of the key considerations, often overlooked or ignored by those developing and deploying such weaponry, is the opportunity of illegal use and human rights abuse the technology can open up. Without proper technical evaluations of their true potential, adherence to guidelines and real pubic accountability, "it is very easy for these weapons to allow policing to go beyond what is lawful.

"Some of the weapons deemed to be benign or non-lethal, for example the electro-shock and stun devices, have been shown to be systematically involved in torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment as well as serious injury."

Responding to concerns raised by Amnesty International about these weapons, the British government has redefined them as instruments of torture and forbidden their export from Britain. Both the EU and UN are following this stance. "Yet such electro-shock weapons are still included in the range of weaponry being tested by the Steering Group," says Omega.

The Steering Group is currently considering five 'front runners', which include 1) some kind of plastic bullet; 2) electrical devices including tasers and stun guns; 3) distraction and disorientation devices, including lasers and noise generating devices; 4) water cannon; and 5) chemical weapons including CN, CS, OC and PAVA and delivery devices.

As Omega details, there are significant risks of serious and permanent injury and long-term health hazards associated with all these 'alternatives'.

Omega points out that while the Steering Group pursued its given task of exploring alternative weaponry, the MoD was secretly working on its own new alternative to the existing plastic bullet, "an option which was not subject to independent review by the Steering Group, who merely rubber-stamped the technical and medical findings".

This MOD 'alternative' was the L21A1, and at the time of its introduction the new plastic bullet was promoted by senior British politicians and the media as a safer less lethal alternative and in line with Patten's recommendations. Both assertions are demonstrably untrue.

"It is difficult to image a situation in another sphere, say the pharmaceutical industry, where safety fears over one drug, for example Thalidomide, because of its tendancy to cause foetal deformations, was substituted by a more powerful variant of the same drug with the same characteristics," says Omega, but this is exactly what has been done in the case of plastic bullets.

Omega compares the deployment of plastic bullets in the north of Ireland to their use and regulation within Britain. Since the introduction of the L21A1, over 300 plastic bullets have been fired by the RUC/PSNI and a further 100 by the British Army in the north of Ireland.

In the same period, the weapon has been used twice in England and twice in Wales. All four of these incidents were 'one on one'í that is a single identified target confronted by one police officer backed by others with access to lethal force. For example, in one case a man wielding a knife and threatening to kill his children was shot with a plastic bullet after which he fell to the ground and was disarmed. Omega points out that this kind of deployment is very different than crowd control situations in the north of Ireland.

When it comes to crowd control, the police in England appear remarkably reluctant to use plastic bullets. "Despite England seeing some very serious rioting in Bradford and Oldham in 2001, baton rounds have still never been used in a public order situation," says Omega.

And when plastic bullets have been used, as in the four incidents, immediate public investigations were initiated and subsequent recommendations implemented.

The British government has linked the withdrawal of plastic bullets with the development of a new alternative weapon. The implication but not the guarantee, is that the replacement will be less lethal. In the 1970s, the rubber bullet was withdrawn after public and international outcry and replaced by the plastic bullet.

The replacement was heralded as 'safer'í much in the same way the L21A1 has been. It was, of course, a lie but an effective lie because it allowed the weapon to remain in use for almost three decades. It appears that the L21A1 is destined for a speedier demise, with the British government suggesting that the weapon will be replaced rather than simply withdrawn within a year.

Just how cynical an exercise the removal of the L21A1 will be depends on whether the weapon is replaced and with what 'alternative'. The British government knows that opposition to the introduction of any new weapon will require the building of a new campaign and a body of evidence, all of which takes time. And all the while the real challenge remains the establishment of proper policing practices that render the use of such weaponry null and void.
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