31 October 2002 Edition

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British Army forced to publish guidelines on plastic bullets

On Wednesday 23 October, for the first time in its history, the British government published its guidelines on the use of plastic bullets by the British Army.

In an answer to a parliamentary question tabled by Labour MP Kevin McNamara, the British government through its minister for armed forces, Adam Ingram, published the full guidelines governing the use of plastic bullets by the British Army in the North of Ireland.

Chairperson of Relatives for Justice and longtime anti-plastic bullet campaigner Clara Reilly said:

"This move came just hours ahead of a combined legal strategy involving the United Campaign Against Plastic Bullets, Relatives for Justice and solicitors firm Kevin Winters & Co, to which the British government had until 4pm Thursday 24 October to publish these guidelines. This answer has avoided an embarrassing scenario whereby the British Army GOC and the Secretary of State would have been forced to defend the non-publication of these guidelines in court in the coming days.

"This legal action had been initiated partly to secure the publication of the guidelines and to measure them against past and recent use of plastic bullets by the British Army. This situation arose with the recent deployment of the British army by the RUC in interface areas in which the Army was using plastic bullets and injuring civilians and children. The legal action was initiated on behalf of Mr Peter Montgomery a community worker from the Short Strand, who had been severely injured in the arm when shot at close range by the British Army, acting in support of a PSNI operation.

"Since November 2001, it has been evident that the RUC have been using the British Army to fire plastic bullets, craftily evading legislative measures in which the PSNI's use of plastic bullets may be subject to investigation by the office of the Ombudsman. The Ombudsman has no authority to investigate the use of plastic bullets fired by the British Army. This has been widely viewed as the PSNI using the British Army to fire plastic bullets by proxy.

"In April 2001, on the introduction of the new more lethal plastic bullet, John Reid assured the public that the new plastic bullet would be a "safe" policing option, subject to stringent guidelines governing their use.

"Now we know that exactly the same weapon has, depending on whether you are a member of the British Army or the PSNI, different guidelines.

"We have yet to give a full response to the British Army's guidelines, however it is evident that are ambiguous and left open to interpretation to suit whatever circumstances, injury or fatality which may occur as a result of their use.

"Surely, "stringent guidelines" governing their use would apply across the board. Like his predecessors, John Reid's spin and rhetoric regarding plastic bullets stands exposed. These weapons are not safe, they are lethal. There are no consistent or stringent guidelines. This fact is borne out by the failure to prosecute any member of RUC or BA for the fatalities and life diminishing injuries caused by plastic bullets when guidelines governing their use are consistently breached. In line with calls from the entire international human rights community - most recently the Unites Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, the only option is to ban this lethal weapon."

UN puts Britain in the dock

A recently produced report by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child has expressed concern "at the continued use of plastic baton rounds as a means of riot control in Northern Ireland as it causes injuries to children and may jeopardise their life". The committee called on the British government to abolish the use of plastic baton rounds. In doing so, they concurred with their colleagues in the UN's Committee on Torture in condemning the use of the lethal projectiles.

Of significance is the fact that this statement has been made 16 months after the introduction of the new plastic bullet and the introduction of the office of the Policing Ombudsman.

Further information on these stories is available at www.relativesforjustice.com

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