Bahrain: the Tear Gas Regime

Cross-posted from Scramble for Africa.

Used tear-gas canisters in Bahrain.

Used tear-gas canisters in Bahrain.

Physicians for Human Rights just released a report on the Bahraini government’s pervasive use of tear gas to repress its restive civilian population. Bahrain has raised the global bar on the usage of tear gas to unprecedented heights. It has become the Tear Gas Regime.

Consider this excerpt from the PHR report:

“PHR investigators visited one home in which residents provided “guest gas masks” to visitors exposed to toxic chemical agents in and around the home. “We’ve been exposed to tear gases almost every day,” said one resident of a Shi’a neighborhood. “We’ve had canisters shot in the house, on the doorstep, and on the roof. We’ve had so many attacks, I can’t count the number of times. You don’t need to go outside to smell the ‘tear gas.’”

The report continues:

“Preliminary analysis of data suggests that the majority of Shi’a neighborhoods (comprising 80% of all neighborhoods in Bahrain) have been exposed to toxic chemical agent attacks at least once per week since February 2011.”

That is a remarkable record of sustained gassing. What does this mean for the neighborhoods and villages affected? As PHR details:

“Symptoms of CS [the most commonly used chemical agent in contemporary ‘tear gas’ worldwide] exposure include severe tearing, burning in the nose and throat, eye spasms, chest tightness, coughing, and wheezing among other signs of oral and respiratory distress.”

Imagine encountering that on a daily or weekly basis as many Shia neighborhoods in Bahrain now are.

There is plenty of reason to question the legitimacy of tear gas usage in virtually any context. PHR medical investigators noted in a report published the AMA’s journal in 1989 that:

“[T]he evidence already assembled regarding the pattern of use of tear gas, as well as its toxicology, raises the question of whether its further use can be condoned under any circumstances… [T]here is an important role for the independent [health] professional: to study, document, analyze, and report on such hazards and to advise government on what does and does not carry an acceptable risk. If a weapon is found to present too serious a risk, it is then the responsibility of those in charge of public safety to decide on alternatives.”

Note the ‘pattern of use’ analysis from even the late ‘80s. When is ‘tear gas’ used in an appropriate and proportionate manner? Can a protestor or bystander among us think of an instance? International law permits its use under the category of ‘riot control’. Thus, it is properly deployed to disperse ‘riots’, not nonviolent gatherings, and not some scattered projectile throwing and minor property destruction.

The very label ‘tear gas’ is a euphemism which obscures that its use on humans: “poses serious health risks and even causes death.” The proper term for ‘tear gas’ is ‘toxic chemical agent’ as PHR employs. As PHR notes, ““Tear gas,” implying that these chemical agents merely cause tearing, is a misnomer.“

Perhaps the roots of the crowd control method should give us pause. The origin of tear gas derives from chemical weapons that became so infamous in WW1.

Lest anyone continue to regard ‘tear gas’ as a mere inconvenience, it has also been implicated as a carcinogen, and may even damage DNA, thus impacting one’s future children and family lineage.

PHR describes the effects of the toxic gas:

“In addition to wounds due to the impact of toxic chemical agent canisters, PHR investigators also documented severe tearing, burning eyes, throat irritation, chest tightness, shortness of breath, and vomiting in individuals exposed to toxic chemical agents. Because chemicals in toxic lachrymatory agents can destroy membranes of the throat, esophagus, and mouth, such vomiting can become dangerous. Even if an exposed person quickly leaves the chemical-saturated area, symptoms of exposure can last hours. …. Sustained exposure to toxic chemical agents can also burn skin and the cornea of the eye. A physiotherapist reported that she developed shortness of breath, wheezing and severe coughing, turned red, and felt hot after being exposed to tear gas that was yellow in color. A doctor at private hospital treated her with Atrovent and Symbicort, but she reported having continued difficulty breathing at night and difficulty speaking for approximately two weeks.”

In the U.S. water hosing crowds fell out of favor due to the illegitimacy it acquired after becoming indelibly associated with the repression of the black Civil Rights movement. By almost any measure, tear gas is far worse. Note that outside the U.S. high pressure water is still utilized. Israel retains the water cannons technique in their crowd control repertoire but has added an extra fillip — lacing the water with sewage-scented malodorous elements.

Historically, tear gas usage has been associated with less than reputable purposes. The South Korean dictatorship (Washington backed by the way) employed it against the democracy movement. PHR:

“Twenty-five years ago, PHR documented the deleterious and long-term health effects of tear gas used indiscriminately in South Korea against civilian protesters, including toxic pulmonary damage and death, as well as possible miscarriages. As physicians we were then compelled to question whether the further use of these toxic chemical agents could be condoned under any circumstances.

The extensive and persistent use of this so-called nonlethal chemical agent now in Bahrain—unprecedented in the 100-year history of tear gas use against civilians throughout the world—compels PHR once again to call the world’s attention to the known and still unknown serious health consequences of tear gas, including death.”

Bahrain is also joined in its distinguished company by the Khartoum regime which along with more lethal means, has employed tear gas in Darfur to quell a recent upsurge in nationwide protests seeking to join their international brethren in the Arab Spring.

Israel has also made a habit of using tear gas, not uncommonly in particularly dangerous or lethal manners by directly firing the canisters at people and vulnerable points, virtually ensuring serious injury or death.

In the U.S., victims of police ‘riot control’ include Scott Olsen, who was hit by a ‘bean bag round’, though the consequences of a tear gas canister no doubt would have been similar.

The PHR report clearly establishes that Bahrain is violating international law in its usage of toxic chemical agents:

“While current international law allows governments to use some chemical agents for crowd control purposes, Bahraini law enforcement officials routinely violate every U.N. principle of their use. Specifically, PHR documents in this report that Bahraini authorities:

(1) Fail to exercise restraint before resorting to force;
(2) Use disproportionate force when responding to protesters; and
(3) Fail to minimize damage and injury to demonstrators.”

We might ask why international law permits chemical weapons in civilian use but not military. PHR ventures that internal use against civilian populations was not a primary concern of conference that drafted the international law guiding the use of chemical weapons and that a lack of consensus (surprise, surprise) among the delegates may have been a factor. While few governments can be properly said to abide by international law on crowd control procedures listed, Bahrain has gone well beyond the normal abuses.

The U.S. of course is deeply complicit in the repression in Bahrain. Though it is not currently supplying the regime with tear gas, the PHR report identifies two of the four main toxic chemical manufacturers that produced the weapons that have been deployed against Bahrain’s citizens are U.S.-based: Nonlethal Technologies, Inc. (based outside of Pittsburgh, PA in Homer City; Nicholas Kristof (to his credit) reported late last year that Nonlethal Technologies tear gas shells were “being swept off the street each morning” in Bahrain.) and Federal Laboratories/Defense Technology in Casper, WY.

Beyond Bahrain, “US-based company Combined Systems Inc., which exports riot-control equipment to armies around the world. The company has yet to address allegations that it has been a primary riot control agent (RCA) supplier to MENA governments embroiled in the Arab Spring.” CSI is located not far from Nonlethal Technologies, in Jamestown, PA. Western Pennsylvania seems on its way to cornering the global market on the production of toxic chemical agents designed for use against civilian demonstrators.

On August 1st the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission on Capitol Hill held a hearing on Bahrain’s record. To his credit Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) testified to oppose Washington’s alliance.

By contrast, Michael H. Posner, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (ha!) testified:

“King Hamad deserves great credit for initiating this commission and for allowing an independent body to take a critical look at Bahrain’s human rights record and to report so extensively on its findings. We also commend the King for accepting and committing to implement the recommendations of the BICI report. And after a worrying period of rising violence in the streets by both demonstrators and police, violence has subsided this summer.”

He of course also added some anodyne criticism to ensure a modicum of credibility for his words.

The U.S. Fifth Fleet gives Bahrain no small strategic significance to the U.S. Democracy would endanger the Fleet — the people might want to evict the Fleet, but we can surely count on the ruling regime. Tellingly, the Fifth Fleet’s home base was take over from the British in 1971 as they relinquished their colonial possessions. You can learn a lot about nations as well as people from observing who its friends are.

Though the U.S. has frozen sales of tear gas to Bahrain (which it appears the regime is having no trouble obtaining elsewhere), Washington nonetheless proceeded in May with an arms deal to the country following a week-long visit to the U.S. by crown prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa. A Bahraini dissident noted that by doing so the U.S. sending “a direct message that we support the authorities and we don’t support democracy in Bahrain, we don’t support protesters in Bahrain.”

Along with Kevin Funk, Steven Fake is the author of “Scramble for Africa: Darfur – Intervention and the USA” (Black Rose Books). They maintain a website with their commentary at scrambleforafrica.org.