Brian Rappert and Chandré Gould, The Dis-Eases of Secrecy: Tracing History, Memory & Justice (Jacana Media: Johannesburg, 2017), 261p.
It took me almost a year to write this book review. There are reasons why. First, the book is not that easy to read. While one can read it linearly (that is one page after another, as one would normally do), it instead invites readers to follow the logic of the argument, which entails dashing back and forwards from one part in the book to another. Second, the insights are profound, and the reader needs to let them sink in. Even in a straightforward linear reading mode, it is simply not possible for one to finish the volume in a couple of hours and claim to have understood the authors’ arguments. And finally, closely linked to the second excuse, while following the trails of various issue threads, I was simultaneously trying to figure out why it is so difficult, if not impossible, to use a country’s past experiences with chemical and biological warfare as a point of departure for education and outreach to prevent the re-emergence of chemical and biological weapon (CBW).
The Dis-Eases of Secrecy tells multiple stories of South Africa’s weird CBW activities between 1981 and 1995, commonly known as Project Coast. The stories are not primarily about individuals or their activities. They are about how those individuals or outsiders construct their actions and the narratives surrounding those actions as ways to shape the legacy of Project Coast and define individual responsibilities of Project Coast participants. At the other end of the spectrum stand the victims of Project Coast. Despite the special attention paid to Project Coast by the Truth and Reconciliation in 1997 and afterwards, did the public narrative — incomplete as it still is — bring closure? Facts are different from Truth, but did the Truth that emerged from those hearings suffice to reconcile?
Structuring the threads
How often does one come across a book whose opening chapter of the introductory section is entitled ‘How to read this book’?
The whole book is constructed around 11 sutras. A ‘sūtra’ in Sanskrit means ‘thread’; in Buddhism ‘narrative part’. A ‘thread’ can mean a group of intertwined filaments; so little surprise that another introductory chapter is called ‘Sewn threads’. Another nod to Sanskrit? ‘Sūtra’ is semantically linked to ‘sīvyati’ (he sews). Irrespective of whether etymology or philosophy inspired the authors, their playing around with both words in the chapter title characterises the book well: one has the option to proceed page after page (in which case, one receives a chronological progression of the authors’ investigation that led to the book) or one can follow any one of the thematic threads via the red thread identifier and number at the end of paragraphs.
The 11 threads are:
- What was done?
- Total war
- Forgetting and remembering
- Legacies of the past
- Need to know
- International relations
- Best offence
- Silence and the fury
- Transitional justice
- Lessons from the past
Inspired by Sven Lindqvist’s technique of thread-based entries in ‘A History of Bombing’ (2001), both authors equally encourage their readers to take ‘one of many possible paths through the chaos of history’ and thus to sense the many different ways a complex social issue can be perceived or experienced.
The threaded approach represents a conscious effort to break through the linearity of communication. As any person will have experienced in an inspired moment, multiple thoughts can near-simultaneously crisscross consciousness and frustrate prose when trying to transpose them into tangible communication. Speak, and phoneme will follow phoneme. Write, and letter will follow letter; word will follow word; and page will follow page. This immutable limitation on verbal communication challenges any author on presenting different angles to an account. A non-linear approach to writing cannot remove this limitation; instead, it places the reader in charge of how and in which sequence she or he wishes to explore individual threads in the narrative twine.
Rappert and Gould use the technique to good effect. Whereas Lindqvist broke with conventional narration to reinforce his view that indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets had its roots in the imperialistic, discriminatory Western views of other cultures, both authors let the reader sense profoundly why a ‘fact’ (e.g. a reference in a meeting record) acquires meaning only in the presence (or absence) of other information and why ‘truth’ is a constructed perception based on the selective inclusion of personal experiences and/or access to ‘facts’ with (selected) meanings.
However, as the previous paragraph makes clear, the technique may be heavy on the reader. It forces one to flip back and forth through the book in search of the corresponding paragraph number while absorbing information just received. Precisely at that moment one will also be processing that information against one’s own knowledge and understandings. The flipping back and forth distracts. Yet at the same time, it is difficult to see how the authors could achieve the same intellectual impact without the disruption of the non-linear presentation of arguments. The brain cannot sink into the comfort of a smooth narrative ride.
Challenging the knowledge comfort zone
To most people CBW present a clear-cut case: they are inherently inhumane, the subject of a longstanding and universal taboo on their use and banned under current international law. Therefore, such weapon use is evil and must be condemned by all. Alas, history and current direct challenges to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) and the Chemical Weapons Convention contradict the good vs evil tale. (See my paper International Norms Against Chemical and Biological Warfare: An Ambiguous Legacy.)
The dichotomy between victim and perpetrator is similarly built on such binary approach. Yet, the types of attributes assigned to each category of persons will be asymmetric. Observation or allegations of collective and individual actions violating the norm or treaties against CBW will feature prominently when designating a perpetrator. In contrast, a range of broad-scope characteristics not specifically related to CBW will habitually define the victim. As Rappert and Gould write (para. 212):
In relation to everyday offences, the ‘ideal victim’ is generally someone that is regarded as weak compared to the offender (which often translates into being female, very young or elderly), blameless for what transpired, a stranger to a clearly reproachable offender and, importantly, able to elicit sufficient concern about their plight without threatening other interests.
Victimhood becomes more difficult to circumscribe if one begins to consider people who participated in trials involving exposure to CBW agents. Even if the test subjects were volunteers, questions arise as to whether they were facilitators of crimes to be committed later (by others) with weapons they helped to optimise, they had been adequately informed of the risks to their health posed by the experimental agents, how free their choice to participate in such trials was, and so on. The authors also point to potential social and other consequences for the children of staff after Project Coast made press headlines (see interview with a Project Coast scientist, para. 486) and the veil of secrecy behind which many of the activities took place was ripped open in certain parts (but never fully removed). As they note, such children fit several expectations of ‘ideal victims’, but just like with relatives of victims who suffered physical harm from CBW use, they only receive secondary consideration.
If ‘victimhood’ suits political discourse or emotional mobilisation well, then varying degrees of vagueness or abstraction will likely hamper criminal prosecution of the alleged perpetrators. More specifically, how will a specific action by an alleged perpetrator be linked to a specific victim? Rephrased more broadly, how can justice be obtained in CBW cases?
Secrecy, justice and reconciliation
A reply by Dr Wouter Basson, Project Officer of Project Coast, to the question why he does not seem to understand what he did wrong in a radio interview best illustrates the quandary (para. 6):
It’s very simple, they must just show me what I did wrong. It’s easy, all they need to do is bring one single case of anybody that was either damaged and/or hurt in this process and I’ll live with it. But nobody can do that. I mean it’s been 20 years that this has been going on and there is not a single scratch and/or blue mark and/or bruise on anybody that could be proven anywhere, so who did I damage and how?
Much of the book turns around two questions: Was there justice for the victims of Project Coast? Did the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) reconcile victims and perpetrators? The quest to answer those questions raises further questions: How is Project Coast being remembered? How is it being forgotten? And by whom? Indeed, beyond the victims and perpetrators (and their relatives and social communities), other categories of protagonists also play or have played substantial roles in shaping the legacy left by Project Coast. These include government leaders and officials under the Apartheid regime; the post-Apartheid government and officials from the African National Congress (ANC); members of the military and security forces; the scientific community and research institutes; TRC members, research staff and other officials; civil society; the press; and the international community. And probably many more …
Secrecy is an all-pervasive element in the book. Through compartmentalisation and an overall policy principle to disseminate information on a need-to-know basis, few people (if any) had a total overview of Project Coast. It also allowed people who came to suspect certain things through casual conversation to ignore inconvenient knowledge; and later, before the TRC, it enabled people to claim ignorance about certain goals or actions, or deny or minimise their responsibility in them. The fact that Project Coast comprised so many different elements, so many different institutions, without clear lines of overall oversight or even management, easily reinforced the utility of secrecy in ‘forgetting’. Paradoxically, the promise of amnesty offered by the TRC to persons willing to admit to norm-breaking or criminal activities as part of the reconciliation process generated exaggerations of complicity. These also tended to obscure rather clarify the past, more so as secrecy and compartmentalisation of knowledge precluded deep verification. One never obtains the certainty that all is (or can be) known and what is supposedly known may be suspect. Ultimately, guesses must fill the gaps, but nobody or nothing can confirm or refute those guesses.
Secrecy was also claimed on the level of national security. However, as Rappert and Gould write (para. 220; emphasis in original):
What the state itself was ‘allowed’ to know was limited to what was officially told. The new ANC state needed to protect the state secret that it did not know. What the Project Coast scientists would say when under questioning at the TRC was wholly unknown.
Add an overlay of ‘proliferation risk’ to whatever might become publicised, and the ‘secret’ got new keepers. Thus, the post-Apartheid government became the owner of secrets, whose contents it did not and could never fully know. Its officials are today extremely reluctant to talk about Project Coast. Both authors tested, for instance, whether it might be useful for South Africa to at least come clean internationally by revising the information submitted under a BTWC Confidence-Building Measure (CBM) on past biological weapon (BW)-related activities. This was rejected, and Rappert and Gould were strongly encouraged not to pursue this line of enquiry by the (British) funders of their project. The latter aspect also demonstrates international community’s contribution to the way Project Coast will be remembered. One international expert suggested that Project Coast was not a typical BW programme and therefore no need exists to discuss it under the BTWC. Some other diplomats held the view that there is no longer any urgent reason to press South Africa on revising its CBM because the nature of the government had changed, the country had re-entered the international community, and it had stopped the programmes. Even though the authors also interviewed other experts and diplomats holding opposite views, the key point remains that consensus on the step was and remains elusive.
Rappert and Gould present a complex, but nonetheless compelling narrative about how a community – in this case, South Africa – addresses the legacy of a CBW programme and the use of such weapons in an armed conflict. Ultimately, the reader is left with the question: what is justice? Dr Wouter Basson in many ways epitomises the complexity of the question: he testified before the TRC; he faced criminal charges; and he was taken to justice for breaching his professional code of conduct by the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA). Only in the latter case he was found guilty in December 2013 but procedural battles before the HPCSA and in courts have thus far blocked his sentencing. Would a final guilty verdict in this case bring closure to the victims? To answer, one may refer to the widow of one of the victims of the 1995 sarin attack against the Tokyo underground after learning that senior Aum Shinrikyo members had been hanged. She said that the executions did not bring closure to survivors or victims’ families and pledged to continue efforts to ensure that the crimes are not forgotten (Sarin victim’s widow comments on execution, 26 July 2018; and Aum victims and bereaved express sense of closure, disappointment and confusion over executions, 6 July 2018):
What I mean by this is that there are lots of things I wanted them to talk about so we can learn more about future counterterrorism. I really wanted them to speak to experts, for example. It’s a disappointment that they can no longer do this.
Arguably, in this instance the direct linkage between perpetrator and victim was much clearer than for Project Coast. Yet, closure does not equal vengeance or mere punishment. It seems to imply the retention of future common value derived from the experiences suffered. It needs to have meaning; remembrance serves the purpose of preventing recurrence.
Towards the end of the book, Chandré Gould reflects on the outcome of the research and the role she and Brian Rappert might come to play in preserving the memory (para. 528):
[…] While most South Africans of a certain generation are likely to be familiar with the name Wouter Basson, artefacts, documents or accounts of the programme are not to be found at significant sites of memory, such as Freedom Park or the Apartheid Museum. What is the reason for this absence of a narrative? I would posit that this has to do with the absence of a coherent, easy-to-relate narrative. With no victims and no voices, or testimony post-TRC to assert the needs or interests of victims, the narrative, staccato and broken as it is, becomes a narrative of ‘perpetrators’. It becomes a story of motives, intentions and possibilities, all of which have been contested. The stories told by willing witnesses were both ridiculous and horrific, a science fiction of apartheid. Basson, as the person who holds all the answers but refuses to release them, becomes not only the secret-keeper (and in this maintains tremendous power over those who believe they might have fallen victim to the programme) but also the focus of all the attention.
The absence of a victim narrative or account also serves to strip the narrative of credibility or resonance. Personalising the violence of apartheid through victim narratives and testimony rendered it visible. In this case, there was no victim (other than Frank Chikane) to associate clearly with the programme, and no one other than the investigator to keep making the case for its importance or relevance. In this situation, the person investigating becomes the story-teller and the person responsible for the victims’ untold victim stories, the placeholder until a more legitimate voice can be heard.
In one of my many discussions on how to use past experiences with CBW in education and outreach, I happened to mention Project Coast, citing a museum exhibition entitled Poisoned Pasts then underway. One member of the group, a retired South African academic, replied, ‘This is controversial’. To me, controversy is a good foundation for discussion. Alas, as I have now learned, in plain English the three words meant: ‘Do not touch’.
Thus, one remains stuck with three cardinal questions: What lessons can be identified from past CBW programmes? What lessons can be learned from those activities? And, how can these insights help preventing the re-emergence of CBW programmes?
Anna Feigenbaum, Tear Gas (Verso: London, 2017), 224p.
Anna Feigenbaum is an academic at the Centre for the Study of Journalism, Culture and Community, Bournemouth University. Her interest lies in data storytelling, an approach that benefits from increasing access to data to build a more complex narrative in support of social change. That narrative is furthermore interwoven with practitioners’ experience and empirical research. Her just published book Tear Gas: From the Battlefields of WW1 to the Streets of Today uses this approach to explain how a chemical warfare agent first used over a century ago has become a common weapon in the arsenals of police forces worldwide.
This is the first time that I have been (consciously) exposed to this research and writing technique. The book makes for good and engaging reading: once picked up, it is difficult to put it aside. It is not a neutral piece of academic research (if such a thing exists): it is a campaign book that details the deception behind the so-called ‘non-lethal’ concept and decries the misuse of a poisonous agent in the name of law and order.
A weapon of war and domestic riot control
Ever since the end of World War 1 policy makers and shapers have expressed their incomprehension about why their military could not use a toxic agent on the battlefield that the police can deploy against riotous crowds. Much rarer is the reverse question why politicians would ever consider equipping national police forces with a weapon of war for use against their electorate. In fact, it is so rare that I cannot recall ever having come across it.
What cannot be denied is that riot control agents have been banned as an instrument of war since the 1925 Geneva Protocol. It is true that before the entry into force of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) now 20 years ago this interpretation of the Geneva Protocol was contested by some, the United States in particular. But then the USA only signed up to the agreement in 1975 after it had come in for severe criticism for its widespread use of anti-plant agents (to deny communist forces jungle cover) and CS lachrymatory agent. This irritant saw widespread application in tunnel combat as well as a tool to separate civilians from North-Vietnamese irregulars who had infiltrated into towns and villages. Even today many Americans will argue with conviction that they did not wage chemical warfare in Indochina because the toxic substances were not lethal like sarin and mustard agent. Their position is not opportunistic: US military and politicians, and hence diplomats, already advanced this viewpoint after World War 1, during the Geneva Protocol negotiations and in the following years and decades. However, the debate if not introduced, then most certainly reinforced the idea that certain types of chemical weaponry can be classified as non-lethal.
The Chemical Weapons Convention
The CWC ended that debate. As part of the General Obligations, Article I, 5 states that:
Each State Party undertakes not to use riot control agents as a method of warfare.
Article II, 7 defines a riot control agent as follows:
Any chemical not listed in a Schedule, which can produce rapidly in humans sensory irritation or disabling physical effects which disappear within a short time following termination of exposure. [Emphasis added]
However, Paragraph 9 of the same Article excludes ‘Law enforcement including domestic riot control purposes’ [emphasis added] from the definition of a chemical weapon, which means that national police forces may deploy lachrymatory agents (other types of irritant agents also fall under this exclusion).
In the first few years of its operation, states parties were unsure how restricting the term ‘domestic’ in the exclusion was. The late 1990s were a period of considerable optimism that through the deployment of international peacekeeping and, if necessary, peace-enforcement forces intra-state conflicts could be prevented from escalating beyond any type of diplomatic negotiation or spreading to neighbouring countries. As I described in the CBW chapter in the 1998 edition of the SIPRI Yearbook, a mere four months after the CWC’s entry into force questions about the meaning of ‘domestic’ and the authority to release riot control agents already arose:
On 28 August 1997 heavily armed troops of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)-led Stabilization Force (SFOR) had to evacuate more than 40 officers of the International Police Task Force from the Bosnian Serb town of Brcko after clashes erupted between peacekeeping forces and civilians. In what was described as one of NATO’s worst confrontations in Bosnia and Herzegovina since the 1995 Dayton Agreement, US helicopters dropped tear-gas and soldiers fired warning shots to disperse the crowd. Another US unit used tear-gas in a second incident on 1 September after being attacked by about 250 people armed with sticks and stones near Bijeljina, a village close to Brcko.
The reservation with regard to riot control agents attached to the US ratification of the CWC on 24 April 1997 further complicated the matter. In the wake of the Viêt-Nam war President Gerald Ford had signed Executive Order 11850, which outlined US policy regarding the use of riot control agents. The US Senate ratified the CWC on the understanding that the convention does not restrict the use of riot control agents, including use against combatants, in the following cases:
(a) the conduct of peacetime military operations within an area of continuing armed conflict when the United States is not a party to the conflict (e.g., Bosnia, Rwanda and Somalia);
(b) consensual peacekeeping operations when the use of force is authorized by the receiving state, including operations pursuant to Chapter VI of the UN Charter; and
(c) peacekeeping operations in which force is authorized by the Security Council under Chapter VII of the UN Charter.
The US Senate accepted the definition of a riot-control agent in Article II of the CWC but stated explicitly that the ‘President shall take no measure, and prescribe no rule or regulation, which would alter or eliminate Executive Order 11850’. (US Senate, Congressional Record, 24 April 1997, p. S3657).
Fortunately, the United States has never exercised this reservation and through practice—no further incidents since the one in the Former Yugoslavia seem to have occurred—it has subscribed to the international consensus concerning riot control agents in armed conflict. In subsequent months and years states participating in UN-authorised missions have even declined to export lachrymatory agent to partner countries in peacekeeping operations in view of the CWC. In other words, the global consensus on the prohibition on the use of riot control agents in armed conflict is of rather recent origin.
Domestic legitimacy of tear gas.
Anna Feigenbaum does not discuss such international evolution of the interdiction or the role of tear gas in armed conflicts and peacekeeping operations. Her book focusses on the domestic dimensions of the weapon’s use. She crafts a historical narrative that easily segues from institutional and economic interests to major incidents of lachrymatory use in crowd control operations. The rise of institutional and economic interests in the manufacture of tear gas is tightly interwoven with the development of the non-lethal narrative as a powerful sales argument. The author deconstructs this sales pitch with science-based arguments: lethality is a function of circumstances. Concentration of the agent plays a big role: tear gas released in a closed room may easily kill its occupants if they cannot quickly make their escape. Infants and the infirm in particular are vulnerable to lachrymators. Even in open spaces the density of the particle cloud—tear gas is not really a gas—and the duration to which a person is exposed to it determine whether he or she will suffer nothing more than short irritation to the exposed parts, longer-lasting harm, permanent damage, or even death.
Feigenbaum’s descriptions of riot control agent use illustrate graphically why exposure to the poison is not so harmless. Below is an extract from her book (pp. 80–81) describing the police intervention during the Democratic National Convention, which took place in Chicago between 26 and 29 August 1968. The United States was witnessing severe civil unrest fuelled by the protests against the war in Viêt-Nam and racial and social inequality. During the preceding months Martin Luther King, Jr and presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy had been assassinated. The protesters were met with severe violence, in a number of cases leading to fatalities.
On Monday night, protesters in Lincoln Park were prepared to resist eviction come curfew time. They assembled a makeshift barricade out of garbage cans and park benches. Hundreds of officers were on hand and equipped to stop the demonstration with force if necessary, periodically giving loudspeaker announcements for the remaining protesters to leave. An estimated thousand protesters remained. Some prepared for tear gas by smearing Vaseline on their faces and covering their mouths with wet clothes. Others held rocks and small projectiles to throw back at police lines. Trash fires burned along the barricade and occasionally a rock was hurled against a police-car window.
The protesters’ chants were angry, mocking the police, floating in the summer air along with the sound of trashcan drums and Allen Ginsberg’s group chanting ‘om’. A police car entered the park from the back and protesters pelted it with stones. With tensions rising, at 12:30 the police issued their final warning to evacuate the park. Then tear gas flew across the barricade:
Tear-gas canisters were plummeting everywhere behind the barricade, through the trees. A huge cloud of gas rolled over the barricade, and cops with gas masks came over the barricade in an assault wave, with shotguns and rifles and using the butts as clubs on anyone in sight.
Protesters, passersby, and even residents out on their porches were beaten. The chasing, swinging, and clubbing was indiscriminate. Journalists, denied any special treatment, were battered and taunted, at times even targeted. The tear gas kept coming:
Gas! Gas! Gas! Was the cry, as if poisonous snakes had been loosed in the area … Thousands streamed across the park toward Clark Street, and panic started, headlong running, the sudden threat of being trampled by your own people … The tear gas was catching up with us, a sharp menthol sort of burning on the cheeks and burning in the eyes, but though some people ran from it, most of us kept on just walking … Now the tear gas began really burning, making the eyes twist tightly closed, and if you rubbed it the burning got worse, as if your eyeballs were being rolled in fire.
Tear gas seeped into homes, cars, and restaurants. It covered whole city blocks, taking over the air. The following night, tear gas was once again used to clear demonstrators from the park at curfew. Historian Frank Kusch writes that a sanitation truck joined the police lines. “The bed of the truck held a tear gas dispenser and a large nozzle for dispensing the gas— all requisitioned from the army. Two police officers manned the nozzle.” Additional gas was fired into the remaining crowd as officers in gas masks forced protesters onto neighboring streets. Some fought back, throwing rocks and bottles.
What emerges from this passage is that tear gas was not deployed to break up a protest but as an indiscriminate means to incapacitate crowds—irrespective of whether the individuals were rioters, accidental bystanders or professionals doing their work—so that the ability to resist other physical means of violence became as good as non-existent. Its use was indiscriminate, affecting even those who happened to live in the vicinity of the incidents.
This violates the basic principles of non-discrimination and proportionality applicable in armed conflict as well as law enforcement. Feigenbaum thus calls tear gas and ‘environmental weapon, a method of policing not only people but the atmosphere itself’. She adds that ‘this upgraded, offensive approach to tear-gas deployment has since become standard in riot-control policing’. (p. 84)
Riot control agents and the CWC
Of course, this particular incident in August 1968 took place long before the entry into force of the CWC. However, any person with the slightest interest in world affairs would over the past few years have seen footage and pictures of riot control agents being used against, for instance, regime opponents in Bahrain (2012), protestors in Turkey (2013), pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong (2014), migrants entering Europe, or during the evacuation of the so-called ‘jungle’ just outside the French town of Calais (2016). How does this square with the aforementioned CWC’s delimitation of a riot control agent as an unscheduled chemical that can produce rapid sensory irritation or disabling physical effects, which disappear within a short time following termination of exposure?
This is an area of contention, which in its first twenty years states parties to the convention have not yet really taken up. The CWC lays down certain limitations on what a state can legitimately use as a riot control agent. Letting myself be inspired by the second edition of The Chemical Weapons Convention: A Commentary (Edited by Walter Krutzsch, Eric Myjer and Ralf Trapp and published by Oxford University Press, 2014, pp. 96–97), such restrictions would include:
♦ An agent cannot be listed in any one of the three schedules annexed to the CWC;
♦ The right to use riot control agents exists only under circumstances that allow people to leave the place of exposure early enough before those effects become irreversible and or more severe than sensorily irritating or physically disabling. As Krutzsch, et al. argue:
This cannot happen if persons are exposed who are unable to leave the place of exposure in the period of time before the ‘chemical action on life processes’ of the chemicals becomes irreversible or more severe than sensorily irritating or physically disabling. The reasons for this may be physical infirmity, age, or the situation at the incident location (e.g., obstacles, RCA use in confined spaces or inside buildings). If the time span of exposure was so long that the sensory irritation and disabling effects no longer disappear spontaneously (or other toxic effects manifest themselves), the chemicals used changed legally from ‘RCA consistent with paragraph 9(d)’ to ‘chemical weapons prohibited under Article I’. [Emphasis added]
♦ The application of riot control agents to ‘punish’ people for their behaviour or in situations when they are unable to escape the harmful properties of the riot control agent would be unlawful.
♦ Under CWC Article II, 1(b) delivery systems (munitions and other devices) that are specifically designed to cause death or other harm through the toxic properties of toxic chemicals fall under the definition of a chemical weapon. Thus Krutzsch, et al. posit that since the toxic effects of any chemical are dose dependent, the delineation of these properties (rapid onset, symptoms limited to sensory irritation or physical disablement, reversibility of the toxic effect) has ramifications for the delivery systems that can be justified. In order to be acceptable as dissemination devices for law enforcement including domestic riot control purposes (and on the condition that the riot control agent itself meets the requirements of Article II, 7), these devices must be designed specifically in such a way that the amounts of riot control agents disseminated by them and the area covered are consistent with (proportional to) the requirements of law enforcement including domestic riot control. Consequently, certain types of large area dissemination systems (such as, e.g. multiple rocket launchers or aerial cluster bombs for riot control agent delivery) would qualify as chemical weapons rather than as means of law enforcement. This reflects the principle that the force used to restore domestic law and order has to be proportional to the degree of disturbance, which limits the permission to use force with riot control agents to the adequate degree in each case; and
♦ A toxic agent intended for purposes not prohibited under the CWC is exempted from the definition of a chemical weapon as long as the types and quantities are consistent with such purposes (Article II, 1(a)).
Finally, under Article III, 1(e) states parties must declare the riot control agent holdings. In particular it must notify the Technical Secretariat of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) of the chemical name, structural formula and Chemical Abstracts Service (CAS) registry number, if assigned, of each chemical it holds for riot control purposes. In addition it must update this declaration not later than 30 days after any change becomes effective.
In other words, international law exists that restricts the unbridled use of riot control agents even in domestic situations. Given that states parties must transpose the CWC obligations into domestic law, these restrictions should apply in any one of them. Or, as Anna Feigenbaum might phrase it, policing of the atmosphere is in breach of international and domestic law. Unfortunately, the issue is not high on the political agenda of the states parties even though the OPCW’s Scientific Advisory Board drew up a list of riot control agents for inclusion in the OPCW Chemical Agent Database (OCAD) in 2001 and considered the issue from the angle of the declaration obligation under Article III in March 2017.
When a book says more than what is printed …
As already noted, the author did not aim to present a comprehensive tear gas biography. Having studied the history of chemical warfare for more than three decades now, one thing I appreciate very much is how she offers a wealth of additional background information and texture to the continuation of chemical warfare programmes after World War 1.
It is generally well-known that after the Armistice efforts to constrain chemical warfare were hampered by the attempts by some victorious parties to secure the production secrets of the German chemical industry, which before the outbreak of hostilities had a virtual global monopoly in (synthetic) organic chemistry, including the commercially rewarding dye stuffs. The specialised military units created during the war for the chemical warfare, smoke and flame operations aligned themselves with those interests out of self-preservation. While they failed in expanding their responsibilities by having chemical weapons occupy a more central role in military doctrine, they were sufficiently successful to survive in a hostile public environment and to benefit from any surge in defence budgets.
In her book, Feigenbaum details how those chemical warfare institutions—most notably the US Chemical Warfare Service—actively promoted the research and production of irritants in pursuit of those goals. The core tools in this strategy were the creation and nurturing of social networks, the organisation of technology transfers between the military and commercial industry and the development of communication strategies (e.g. the non-lethal argument) towards policy makers and the public. Veterans from those special units remained in contact with each other through fraternities and their employment in the chemical industry after demobilisation facilitated this military-industry exchange. One poignant sales pitch the military offered industrialists was the ‘humane’ breakup of industrial strikes. Tear gas offered an alternative to the police shooting strikers, so the argument went. The strategy was not a slam dunk, witness several congressional hearings. However, over the years evolving business models for risk and security increasingly influenced the public safety discourse.
This knowledge about the deliberate pursuit of joint military-industrial interests and the resulting public debates furthermore contributes to the understanding why in the 1920s and 1930s resolving the conundrum of riot control agents took up such a central space in the framing of international norms against chemical warfare. Diplomats had already come to appreciate the dual-use potential of many commercial toxic chemicals. Preserving the legality of riot control agents in domestic law enforcement, while banning their use on the battlefields added an extra layer of complexity. Is it therefore not ironic that tear gas became a key factor in the formulation of the so-called ‘general purpose criterion’? The British draft disarmament treaty of 1933 contained its first iteration and today it is the cornerstone of the CWC. Indeed, law enforcement and domestic riot control is a purpose not prohibited under the convention.
Another interesting angle developed in the book is how the UK adopted tear gas, first allowing it in the colonies, then in Northern Ireland, before authorising its use on the main island. It extends a longstanding historical pattern whereby use of poison weapons was prohibited against one’s own creed or other civilised peoples but entirely appropriate against indigenous people or in the colonies. Again Feigenbaum describes how interested parties, through their appointment in specialised review committees set the standards for security and safety, could influence the public discourse and create a demand for new agents and dissemination systems.
Last year I reviewed Michael Crowley’s book Chemical Control: Regulation of Incapacitating Chemical Agent Weapons, Riot Control Agents and their Means of Delivery. I described it as a researcher’s data paradise offering highly technical and detailed information on the nature of riot control and incapacitating agents and their delivery systems, the research and development behind them, where they are being manufactured and how they are traded. However, this book is not for the novice.
Anna Feigenbaum’s Tear Gas is the perfect introduction to the subject matter. It is well written and engaging. It does not lose the reader in technical details but builds a cogent narrative as to why riot control agents are problematic in current police operations. The book is not objective, nor is it comprehensive. It seeks to mobilise public consciousness about a matter that is almost daily fare on international news channels. She hereby draws on several years of preparatory research and her efforts to map the global use of tear gas. In 2014 I already drew attention to her work. The last chapter in Tear Gas introduces the reader to her project and updates its status.
She focusses mainly on the United States and the United Kingdom, an outcome she attributes to her language limitations. In a certain sense, such country selection is also logical as the number of societies that release policy and technical documents for public consumption are rather limited. The data storytelling methodology may therefore reinforce this already pre-existing bias. Similarly, a question lingers as to how the methodology ascertains the comprehensiveness of collected information or is able to identify relevant gaps. I realise that my questions spring forth from a desire for comprehensiveness rather than from an explicit pursuit of social change. Notwithstanding, Feigenbaum has used the methodology to great effectiveness and in many ways has satisfied my eternal yearning for new insights and facts.
Note: Anna Feigenbaum and I have occasionally corresponded with each other on the topic of riot control agents and chemical warfare in World War 1. She has quoted several contributors (including myself) to the book Innocence Slaughtered, which I edited. Otherwise I have no connection with her research project or publication.
Starting at the end of January, several press items reported on an academic article published in the December edition of the quarterly magazine Endeavour. Based on documents from the Dachau concentration camp, Dr Klaus Reinhardt, a biologist at the University of Tübingen uncovered that Nazi scientists wanted to use mosquitos as insect vector for the delivery of malaria plasmodium protozoans. According to the article abstract:
In January 1942, Heinrich Himmler, head of the Schutzstaffel (SS) and police in Nazi Germany, ordered the creation of an entomological institute to study the physiology and control of insects that inflict harm to humans. Founded in the grounds of the concentration camp at Dachau, it has been the focus of previous research, notably into the question of whether it was involved in biological warfare research. This article examines research protocols by the appointed leader Eduard May, presented here for the first time, which confirm the existence of an offensive biological warfare research programme in Nazi Germany.
In 1999, while at SIPRI, I oversaw the publication of a volume in the Chemical & Biological Warfare Studies series edited by Erhard Geissler and John Ellis van Courtland Moon on Biological and Toxin Weapons: Research, Development and Use from the Middle Ages to 1945. Geissler, now a retired professor in molecular biology and genetics, wrote the chapter on Germany’s biological warfare programmes before and during World War 2. He basically debunked the myth that the SS was conducting a secret offensive biological warfare programme against Hitler’s explicit orders not to investigate such weapons.
Reinhardt claims to have recently uncovered fresh documents from Dachau and suggests that the earlier assessments of Germany’s offensive BW activities are wrong. Being familiar with Geissler’s investigations — particularly with the 900-page mastodont, emphatically entitled Biologische Waffen – nicht in Hitlers Arsenalen — and other historical research on the origins of offensive biological warfare programmes on the eve of and during World War 2, I was mildly sceptical of the new claims. While the possibility of finding new archival material always exists, contradicting a central conclusion of extensive historical research is quite a different matter. An article in National Geographic summarised Reinhardt’s findings, but also noted that they are controversial among researchers. His conclusions were therefore not as absolute as some press items were suggesting, I therefore assumed.
Yesterday, however, Erhard Geissler posted a blog commentary, calling the findings ‘disinformation’ :
Despite the thrilling headline Reinhardt in his article does not provide any new material regarding the dual-use activities performed in the Entomological Institute of the Waffen-SS beyond that what was already published. The low-scale experiments performed by Eduard May in September 1944 on the survival of food-deprived mosquitoes, can hardly assessed as confirmation of “the existence of an offensive biological warfare research programme in Nazi Germany”. Besides that, the main body of Reinhardts paper including its concluding paragraph does not pick up the alleged BW preparations but deals with the “enigmatic figure” of its director, Eduard May.
Up to today there is no evidence of offensive biological warfare research in Germany after the unsuccessful attempts of German biosabotage in WWI. It is a pitty that the misleading heading of Reinhardt ‘s article similar to other disinformation campaigns are favored by some media’s apparent craving for a breaking story that often supersedes thorough investigation.
This is pretty categorical debunking of research findings. To be continued?
[Cross-posted from The Trench]