30 May 2002 Edition
Plastic bullets still kill
O'Loan absolves RUC/PSNI
BY LAURA FRIEL
Plastic bullets maim and kill. The status of the weapons as a 'non lethal' alternative is a myth both in terms of its technological development and deployment history. The guidelines are little more than a smokescreen and in the hands of hostile forces, plastic bullets are often used as an offensive weapon of mass intimidation or as a punitive weapon of arbitrary injury and death.
Last week's report by the Police Ombudsman, Nuala O'Loan, 'justified' the RUC/PSNI use of plastic bullets during the past year, but it did not change any fundamental truths about this weapon. It didn't render the technology safer or exonerate past atrocities; it didn't change the nature of the RUC/PSNI or the relationship of the northern state with its citizens.
But it did do one thing. It created a very dangerous myth. The fact that the RUC/PSNI's use of plastic bullets had been 'investigated' by a body with marginal 'independence' generated an image of 'accountability'. And that myth fed another.
The RUC/PSNI was not only more 'accountable'; the prospect of being held accountable had rendered its actions more 'responsible'. By justifying the deployment of plastic bullets, the report suggests that accountability has modified the behaviour of the officers engaged in using the weapon and resulted in a more restrained deployment.
"In all the instances the use of baton rounds was fully justified. Indeed, the police frequently acted with considerable restraint," said O'Loan. And commenting upon a specific incident she concludes: "The scale of the disorder was such that earlier and greater use of baton rounds may have been justified."
But there is one serious flaw in this. The RUC/PSNI have already developed a mechanism to circumvent any 'accountability' that might have threatened to restrict the use of plastic bullets. And that mechanism is the deployment of the British Army.
The decision to deploy British soldiers rests entirely with the RUC/PSNI. Unlike the RUC/PSNI, there are no mechanisms of accountability to which the British army can be subjected. The Ombudsman has no jurisdiction to investigate, consider or comment upon the British Army's use of plastic bullets.
Even the guidelines under which the British Army discharges plastic bullets are secret and beyond public scrutiny. We don't even know how many plastic bullets the British Army has fired this year.
O'Loan cannot even take account of those people whose injuries have been sustained by plastic bullets fire by a British soldier. This is despite the fact that the British Army is operating in conjunction with, at the request of and under the ultimate authority of the RUC/PSNI.
In other words, the Ombudsman's remit is so restricted that any conclusions drawn from the report are meaningless in every way but one. By justifying the RUC/PSNI use of plastic bullets, O'Loan has created a smokescreen of 'accountibilty' and 'acceptabilty' behind which, through the deployment of the British army, the RUC/PSNI remains free to inflict as much injury and death as it wants.
The Ombudsman's report is at best misguided and at worse dangerous. It is out of step with international evaluation of this deadly weapon; the United Nations Human Rights Committee is currently calling for plastic bullets to be banned. And it has rendered more difficult the task of the many human rights groups working within the Six Counties. Tragically, the ramifications of this flawed report will most likely be played out in the broken bones and shattered lives of future plastic bullet victims.
In a statement, the Garvaghy Road Residents Coalitoin has criticised the Ombudsman's justification of the use of plastic bullets on the Road last year.
A spokesperson said: "Nuala O'Loan should explain exactly what the evidence was upon which she reached her conclusions in relation to events on Garvaghy Road on 26 May 2001. It is noticeable that the report does not explain how one the victims, an authorised officer working for the Parades Commission, was struck by a baton round, or how another man,was struck twise by two seperate baton rounds. The Police Ombududsman's report has also failed to provide any explanation as to why the official police version of only six plastic bullets being fired on that date is at complete variance with that of eyewitnesses, who reported at least 11 fired the police."