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23 May 2002 Edition

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Human Rights Commission criticised

Sinn Féin human rights spokesperson Pat McNamee has criticised the decision by the Human Rights Commission (HRC) not to monitor the ongoing use of plastic bullets as part of its research into the weapon. Speaking on Monday, the Assembly member said:

"Sinn Féin has consistently demanded a ban on plastic bullets and we have made our position abundantly clear to the HRC. I welcome the fact that the Commission is engaging in research on this lethal weapon but am amazed that it have chosen to ignore their continued use.

"The place to find the real evidence about plastic bullets, and those who use them, is on the streets of North and East Belfast, where they are being discharged, and that is where the HRC should be examining their use."


Plastic Bullet outrage


A week ago, Therese Quinn was shot with a plastic bullet fired by a British soldier in the nationalist Short Strand area of east Belfast. It was Tuesday afternoon at the end of the school day and local children were making their way home.

On impact, the 27-year-old mother 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 Therese was stricken with pain and panic.

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

At the hospital, despite the fact that the injury required surgery to reconstruct the shattered elbow, surgeons were unable to operate because of persistent bleeding. "The blood just seeped through the bandages," says Therese, "and the wound was still bleeding three days later."

A week later, Therese has been temporarily discharged from hospital. Her arm is encased in plaster and she is to undergo reconstructive surgery at a later date. Since her injury, Therese has suffered from persistent nausea and intermittent vomiting. She still requires morphine to ease the severe pain in her arm.

"I was coming away from my sister's and walking towards by father's house when I was shot," says Therese. "The street was quiet. There were only women and children, standing at their door or in their gardens. Just looking out to see what was going on. No one was rioting - the trouble was further up on the Mountpottinger Road."

Therese heard someone shout a warning that British soldiers at the end of the street appeared to be preparing to fire. Two children, aged about ten and eight, were walking close by and fearing they might be hit, Therese told them to go inside a nearby garden and take shelter. Moments later, a plastic bullet hit Therese. "I just collapsed to the ground."

Therese Quinn was one of ten people injured by plastic bullets fired by British soldiers and members of the PSNI last Tuesday afternoon. Amongst those seriously injured was a 16-year-old school pupil, who was hit in the chest and began coughing blood. A 19-year-old woman and a photographer from the Irish News both suffered leg injuries and a 30-year-old youth worker's arm was broken in two places.

Just over a year ago, the then British Home Secretary Jack Straw defied international pressure to ban the use of plastic bullets and announced the introduction of the new L21A1 projectile. The British government's own research admitted that the new plastic bullet travelled faster, hit harder and penetrated deeper.

British government scientists also admitted that in terms of the technology, the deployment of the L21A1 would result in more injuries, more serious injuries, greater internal injuries and more fatal head injuries.

The British government insisted the new weapon was 'safer'. But as An Phoblacht pointed out at the time, non-specific claims that the new plastic bullet was safer begged the question, safer for whom? Increasing the bullet's density and velocity diminishes the risk of misfires and breach fires; it does not diminish the risk at impact.

In other words, the new plastic bullet may be 'safer' for the British Crown forces discharging the round, but it is unlikely to be less dangerous for the unfortunate victim. Cynically, the British government avoided public acknowledgement of what their own research had established - that the technology itself was more dangerous, and sidestepped the issue of 'safety' by referring to guidelines and accountability.

The new plastic bullet was 'safer' because "we have now introduced more stringent requirements concerning the deployment of baton rounds and more transparency and accountability in this use," the British Secretary of State, John Reid reassured the community.

The events of last week in the Short Strand show that even this minimal assurance was built on sand. As the United Campaign Against Plastic Bullets (UCAPB) pointed out, "it is now the norm for the PSNI/RUC to use the British Army to fire plastic bullets as an unaccountable mechanism of using lethal force against civilians".

Unlike the PSNI/RUC, the British Army is not subject to even the minimal accountability of the Police Ombudsman's Office. "The British Army has refused to publish its own guidelines on the use of plastic bullets," says Clara Reilly of UCAPB. "They are totally unaccountable."

The decision to deploy British troops onto the streets to fire plastic bullets at unarmed nationalist civilians lies with the PSNI/RUC. By doing so, the forces of the Crown sidestep all "transparency and accountability" promised by Reid.

"It is obvious that securocrats in the NIO and the PSNI/RUC have craftily side stepped any legislative mechanisms of accountability and makes a farce of claims by the office of the Ombudsman that they will investigate thoroughly the use of plastic bullets," says Clara.

Another claim peddled by the British government to support its claim that the new plastic bullet was 'safer' came under scrutiny this week. A leading European weapons expert disclosed that vital evidence about the dangers of the new plastic bullet was being deliberately suppressed by the British Ministry of Defence.

At the time of its introduction, the British government claimed the L21A1 was 'safer' because it was more accurate. The claim was based on the dubious notion that only those who 'deserved' to be hit by a plastic bullet would be injured therefore the weapon was 'safer' for everyone else. It now seems that even this in untrue.

According to Neil Corney of the renowned OMEGA foundation, an appendix attached to a report into the lethal potential of the new plastic bullet is being suppressed. The appendix deals with the ricochet effects of the new L21A1.

The OMEGA Foundation monitors the international arms trade from a human rights perspective and is currently preparing an independent report into the effects of plastic bullets for the Six-County Human Rights Commission.

Neil Corney is a respected ballistics expert who has carried out research for the European Parliament and European Commission. He met delegates from the UCAPB and Relatives for Justice last week.

Corney said that 20% of plastic bullets missed their target and that it was vital to establish what happens to those plastic bullets after they have been discharged.

"If there is a possibility that a richocet plastic bullet round still holds enough energy to injure bystanders, then this information must be released," said Corney.

"We have asked directly to see the information contained in the appendix but so far we have been refused," he said.

"The fact that that MoD is still withholding information from the public is extremely disturbing," said Clara. "We have to ask the question, what do they have to hide?"


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