Crowd control with chemical agents: Fundamental questions raised

Book review

Michael Crowley, Chemical Control: Regulation of Incapacitating Chemical Agent Weapons, Riot Control Agents and their Means of Delivery (Palgrave Macmillan: Basingstoke, 2015), 378p.

Crowd control-sAnybody who has attended one of Michael Crowley’s annual presentations at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) on the challenges posed by riot control and incapacitating agents for the future of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) knows his passion for the subject matter. And his overwhelming knowledge about the latest developments in science, technology, industry and government policies. These characteristics also typify his book on the topic, Chemical Control, published late last year.

The book can be read on three levels:

  • as an almost encyclopaedic presentation of facts,
  • as an in-depth analysis of the regulatory regimes pertaining to chemical crowd control agents, which leads to concrete policy recommendations, and
  • as a treatise on the analytical framework that has guided the research and the book structure.

Each level has merit in its own right. The third one, however, lifts this book above many other monographs on weaponry. Not just because of the ways in which it has informed Crowley’s research and analysis, but because it opens windows to fundamental debates on the purpose of disarmament and arms control today and tomorrow. He was right to resist calling his analytical framework a theory, but it nevertheless contains elements of theory. He formulates certain assumptions, but the book’s primary goals unfortunately do not give him the space to discuss them in depth. Because Crowley fundamentally questions some traditional understandings of the purpose of disarmament and arms control, he lays down an intellectual challenge that disarmament theorists or international lawyers cannot ignore.

A rich data source

The first level is that of the researcher’s data paradise. The monograph offers 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, and most importantly for the other levels on which the book can be read, where and how they are being used.

Chemical warfare has its fair share of horror stories. About the impact of toxic chemicals on the body—from the painful and slow-healing blistering of the skin by mustard agents to the uncontrollable convulsions caused by exposure to sarin or other nerve agents. About the human experiments conducted not just in the Japanese prisoner of war camps in China in the Second World War or the dungeons of the darkest totalitarian regimes, but also in the bastions of Western democracy. Until today veterans in the UK and the USA, for example, are fighting to have their contribution to the national defence effort officially recognised and receive adequate compensation and health care—if they are still alive.

However, it is quite a different present-day horror story to read that quite a few states use incapacitants and riot control agents (such as tear gas)—toxic chemicals that some try to sell to public opinion as so-called non-lethal or humane weapons—to torture prisoners or regime opponents. Page after page, table after table Crowley details national practices of certain countries. They beggar belief were it not for the fact that source references make up two-thirds of the pages with tables.

Crowley methodically presents the different types of agent together with their characteristics and consequences after exposure, the country armament programmes and practices, and incidents. He never meant those pages to be read in a systematic way; they are detailed reference materials for researchers worldwide. In that sense he comes as close as possible to an encyclopaedic treatment of the subject matter. Future reports by him and other researchers will have to update the data sets.

If assimilation of this wealth of data might appear daunting, then section introductions and conclusions pull the main strands of his empirical analysis neatly together.

Considerations for policy shapers and makers

The second level is that of policy advice. I must admit that when I first saw the table of contents and noticed that the final chapter addressed conclusions and recommendations I had concerns about the substance of the book. It is one thing to undertake solid empirical research; it is quite a different thing to lay out arguments (and thereby present data selectively) in support of policy recommendations. Too often such treatises display superior argumentative logic, all the while lacking foundation in factual reality. Or they may sink to the level of wholly speculative ‘may and might’ analyses spinning hypothetical, often worst-case scenarios whose projected consequences then inform policy recommendations.

To my relief Crowley avoids this trap because a solid analytical framework structures his analysis (see the third level below). Thus after having laid out the technical aspects and national programmes of crowd control agents, he moves to the regulatory regimes. Again he proceeds systematically. In what amounts to over half of the book, he devotes a chapter each to arms control and disarmament law, international humanitarian law, human rights law, international criminal law, technology transfer control regimes, and UN drug control conventions. For each of the treaties, regulations, policy declarations, or informal arrangements (such as the Australia Group or Wassenaar Arrangement) Crowley presents the reader with a summary of the objectives and tools, an analysis of their implementation, and options for amelioration.

In the penultimate chapter he examines how civil society can contribute to the strengthening and implementation of the respective regimes. It comprises a comprehensive overview of ideas that have been explored in the fields of chemical and biological weapon control over the past decade and a half, as well as various initiatives whose primary concern have been the humanitarian and human rights consequences of the application of crowd control agents. In the process the author comments on such activities and suggests further options and improvements.

Crowley’s recommendations are rooted in this detailed analysis. He identifies areas of action where governments (and by extension, intergovernmental organisations) have to assume their responsibilities with regard to the strengthening and implementation of the international rules. He also considers how civil society constituencies can contribute to the strengthening of existing tools (e.g., through the development of ethical and professional codes of conduct, educational initiatives, etc.) or develop independent initiatives to track developments (e.g., open source monitoring of the use of crowd control agents or the political and technological imperatives for their further development and international commercialisation) with a view of holding policy makers accountable.

The final chapter thus comprises succinct summaries of the issues treated in the preceding chapters and related policy recommendations.

Analytical framework

As already indicated in the introduction, to me the best aspect of the book is the analytical framework. Crowley calls it ‘holistic arms control’ (HAC). It concentrates on existing arms control and disarmament measures, but seeks to expand on the numbers and types of regulatory measures and broaden the range of possible stakeholders.

The ambition is not small: he must weave a net whose meshes are sufficiently wide to catch all relevant data, while small enough to filter out irrelevant elements. Moreover, his construct is multidimensional, capturing the technologies together with national and human security concerns of inappropriate use, all relevant international legal regimes and other types of regulation together with the relative strengths and weaknesses, and possible strategies to reinforce all barriers against misuse of crowd control chemicals.

He deconstructs this ambition in the opening chapter and in the process outlines a step by step methodology that will form the backbone for the whole book. Cowley’s rigid adherence to the model contributes significantly to the readability of his analysis: throughout the reader remains aware of the stage of analysis and when particular questions are likely to be addressed. At the same time, he leaves the reader with a strong sense of comprehensiveness by bringing in many elements that one might not immediately consider when touching upon the subject of incapacitating and riot control agents. His discussion of the 1971 UN Convention on Psychotropic Substances is but one example.

A theoretical knot

However, the HAC framework is not merely analytical, it is also aspirational. It carries elements of theory formation that offer the perspective of substantive debates on the purpose of disarmament in fast changing times. As the author states (p.4):

Recognizing that reliance upon a single disarmament or arms control agreement alone would not guarantee success, scholars have explored a number of concepts, seeking to broaden the range of possible regulatory mechanisms.

His analysis is therefore also aspirational:

Although the proposed HAC analytical framework concentrates upon existing arms control and disarmament measures, it attempts to widen the range of applicable mechanisms for regulation, and also the nature of the actors involved in such regulatory measures.

Consequently, HAC can be thought of as a framework for analysis to aid the development of a comprehensive, layered and flexible approach to arms control […]

Left unsaid is the central question: what is the core purpose of disarmament (as embedded in the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) and the CWC, two key pillars of the regime against the misuse of incapacitating or riot control agents)? Furthermore, how do treaty regimes evolve in the light of technological, political and social changes over the years since their adoption and entry into force?

Humanitarian considerations have over the past two decades taken up a prominent place in the disarmament and arms control discourses. This means that today a different reference framework for judging effectiveness of a convention exists than the one originally intended: the focus of the public debate has shifted from the weapon technology (which must be eliminated) to the consequences of their use under a variety of circumstances on individuals and communities, which in turn has amplified calls to hold those responsible for violations accountable under national and international criminal law. That conflict of purpose is on clear display in the Syrian civil war: many people do not understand why the international community can invest resources in eliminating Syria’s chemical warfare capacity, but does not want to intervene to stop the slaughter of civilians.

The issue really becomes interesting when two humanitarian considerations intersect at a given decision-making moment in a disarmament setting, and a choice has to be made. Crowley points to such a moment during the 3rd CWC Review Conference in April 2013 (pp. 130–31), however without realising the underlying conflict (of conscience) that led to the item of incapacitating agents being dropped form the final document. The debate occurred when the number of reported chemical weapon (CW) incidents in the Syrian civil war was rising fast, and only a few weeks after the UN Secretary-General established a mission to investigate allegations of CW use. Including a condemnation of the escalating chemical warfare crisis proved highly controversial. Compromise was possible on severely weakened language only, which was totally unacceptable to the Western Group and Other States (WEOG). The final document was in the balance. Given that Poland was chairing the review conference, failure was not an option for the European Union members.

One WEOG ambassador was unable to get updated guidance on compromise language on the questions of incapacitants and Syria from his capital, and therefore had to decide under his personal responsibility (all the while bearing in mind that the successful outcome of the review conference hung in the balance). He opted to go with the compromise language on Syria and (in consultation with the original sponsor, Switzerland) drop references to incapacitants, a key consideration being that the issue could be taken up at a later date. Does such a decision make the CWC less effective? The consensus language in the final document would ultimately form a not insignificant foundation for subsequent action by the OPCW following the sarin attacks in the district of Ghouta less than four months later, and Syria’s accession to the CWC and subsequent disarmament. Outcomes at meetings can result from complex decision processes when different interests conflict with each other and priorities (often in function of developments at the time) need to be established.

So, I raise the question whether the global community is best served by finding ways to ameliorate core instruments or by broadening the range of tools in order to capture a particular issue of interest? I have no immediate answer because, as the book describes, science and technology and their application in various circumstances may evolve much faster than the international community can regulate them or update existing treaty regimes. Nevertheless, I do have the concern that multiplication of treaties and other regulatory instruments lead to different lists of states participating in each one of them and different levels of compliance and enforceability. That could lead to a cacophony of expectations based on different requirements and interpretations of obligations.

This final reflection is not a criticism of Chemical Control. The question touches upon theories of regime formation and international law and goes beyond the purpose of Michael Crowley’s book. However, it is a matter I definitely wish to engage him on. I can only commend him for offering a solid framework for structuring that particular debate on the future of disarmament and arms control and identifying the fundamental assumptions underlying both concepts.


[Cross-posted from The Trench]

On suicide, riot control and ‘other peaceful purposes’ under the BTWC

In the Greater Manchester area a 16-year old boy stands trial for having tried to buy 10 milligrams of abrin on the dark web. Abrin is a toxin found in the seeds of Abrus precatorius, otherwise known as jequirity or rosary pea.

UK authorities arrested him in February and have charged him under the Biological Weapons Act 1974 and Criminal Attempts Act 1981. In particular, the charge refers to the General Purpose Criterion (GPC) as framed in Article I of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) and transposed into British criminal law. As reported in The Guardian on 19 February:

The full charge against the boy is that between 24 December 2014 and 16 February 2015 he attempted to acquire a biological toxin or agent of a type and in a quantity that has no justification or prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purpose, namely Abrin.

The maximum sentence for the offence is life imprisonment.

During the trial the boy’s defence argued that he sought to buy the toxin to commit suicide. Under those circumstances, possession of abrin could technically have been for ‘peaceful purposes’, so the defence argued to have the charges dropped.

Judge Khalid Jamil Qureshi dismissed the claim:

The question is whether suicide is peaceful. Suicide, by definition, is an act of violence, so the defence will not be applicable.

By which he opposes ‘peaceful’ to ‘violence’, rather than the idea of ‘war’ or ‘armed conflict’ more prevalent in the disarmament communities and intended by the BTWC negotiators.

This is the second recent case—the other one was Bond versus the United States, which went twice to the US Supreme Court—in which a domestic criminal trial causes a judge to interpret key terms in a national law that originated with a disarmament treaty. Especially since there has been a growing debate on the understanding of ‘compliance’ with disarmament and arms control treaties and an emphasis on national implementation of such treaties to counter terrorist threats, these domestic court cases raise questions about how domestic judgements may begin to affect common understanding of treaty obligations and expectations. Depending on the legal system, judgements may be precedent-setting. However, whichever may be the case, the interpretations apply to the country in question only. Divergencies about compliance expectations over time are therefore not beyond imagination.

The law enforcement debate

One area where domestic legal interpretation of concepts derived from multilateral disarmament treaties may have profound impact is that of law enforcement. The BTWC and the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) proscribe the use of infective agents, toxins and toxic chemicals as methods of warfare. The CWC, however, does not consider riot control agents, toxic chemicals that by definition cease to have an impact on the target as soon as exposure stops, to be chemical weapons if used for law enforcement purposes (including domestic riot control). The BTWC contains no similar provision.

Last October I wrote a blog contribution on the use of pepper spray in new naval anti-piracy tactics. My main question then was how the authority for the release of the agent under the CWC could be determined. Under the proposed scenarios, nationals from different parties to the CWC operating outside the territory of their own country would likely be involved in any such chain of decisions. Moreover, private security companies might be in charge of safeguarding ships threatened by pirates. Some comments to the blog contribution (posted to Arms Control Law) pointed out that under different international treaties, including the Law of the Sea, authority to take action against pirates is clearer. So, the matter becomes an issue of fragmentation in international law.

In my subsidiary question I wondered whether the use of pepper spray (which involves a toxin) could fall under ‘other peaceful purposes’ in Article I of the BTWC. Indeed, the BTWC does not specifically list law enforcement as an authorised purpose. To the best of my knowledge, law enforcement has never been listed as an additional understanding of the rest category of ‘other peaceful purposes’. The issue is less clear and government officials tend to avoid answering that question.

However, in light of Judge Qureshi’s argument, the use of violence (rather than the application as a method of warfare) contradicts the ‘peaceful purpose’ criterion. So, applying a toxin to deny pirates access to a ship would amount to a violation of the BTWC. If this is the case, then what to think of the experiments in India to deploy drones armed with pepper spray for crowd control? Under the CWC, perhaps yes, but the BTWC?

Keep thinking. Keep thinking.

New naval anti-piracy tactics – pepper spray and “domestic” riot control

[Cross-posted from The Trench]

Yesterday the Smithsonian “Smartnews” site featured the article Robot Ships And Pepper Spray—the Latest in Pirate-Fighting Tech. According to the piece, UK researchers are actively looking into mobilising capsaicin – the active ingredient in pepper spray – to fend off pirate attacks at sea:


The age of naval battles between huge ships on the high seas seems to have passed into distant memory. Instead, some of the most devastating attacks on giant vessels in recent years have been executed by boats small enough to get through the larger ships’ defenses.

But now, governments around the world are working on technology designed to stop these attacks. In the U.K, researchers are working on a remote monitoring system—called the MATRiX system—that resituates the traditional responsibilities of a lookout to land-bound control rooms. The system has a connected network of anti-pirate deterrents attached to the outside of the ship. If a threat is detected, the deterrant [sic] system releases two relatively simple tools—nets that will catch in the propellers of attacking boats and a fog of capsaicin, the active ingredient in pepper spray (and bear repellent).


My question is: how does that fit with international law?

It stretches the understanding of non-prohibited purposes as defined in Article II, §9(d) of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which allows the use of riot control agents for law enforcement purposes, including domestic riot control. The concept of “law enforcement” is vague in the CWC and efforts are underway to clarify the notion in the context of various research and development activities concerning incapacitants.

In this particular case, however, it seems that not even law enforcement officials would  the responsible for the decision to release the capsaicin against pirates (unless they are the ones sitting in “land-bound control rooms”). The afore-mentioned article suggests that the device would be deployed by the  merchant ship under attack. Even if law enforcement officials would be at some land-based centre, would they be able to override the captain’s authority or would they just give the captain the green light to activate the system when needed? If the captain must call in authorisation from land, what country’s jurisdiction would come into play? The country under whose flag the ship is sailing? The country on whose territory the control rooms are located? The country whose nationality the law enforcement officials possess?

In light of the ongoing privatisation of security (who actually uses force to defend the ships against attacks? who sits in the land-based control rooms?), the blurring of boundaries between armed conflict and counter-terrorism / -crime operations, and the banalisation of riot control agents, it would appear that legal clarity about this new contraption should be established by the relevant national authorities and the international community (represented by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons—OPCW).

Having said that, capsaicin is a toxin—a poison produced by a living organism. As such the legitimacy of its application is also covered by the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC). That treaty does not distinguish between whether the compound was derived from the chili pepper or produced synthetically. More importantly, however, the BTWC does not make an exception for law enforcement purposes. This leaves the question as to whether “law enforcement” can be considered to be one of the “other peaceful purposes” in Article I.

As it stands now, nobody has really been able to give me a sound explanation why the provisions of the CWC should supersede those of the BTWC.

I am open to good legal arguments.

The banalisation of tear gas

I am not the only person who is concerned by the banalisation of tear gas as a riot control agent. Over the past few years, the intensity with which such agents have been used has increased markedly, to the point that whole sections of cities now routinely become saturated with the toxic chemicals. In particular Michael Crowley of Bradford University’s Non-Lethal Weapons Project has published studies on the fast technological development and growing global markets of riot control agents and their delivery systems: one in collaboration with the Omega Research Foundation, and one, co-authored with Dana Perkins, then expert of the 1540 Committee, for the Biochemical Security 2030 Project, University of Bath. Likewise, the Physicians for Human Rights issued a report in 2012 on the Bahrain government’s indiscriminate use of tear gas, and in 2013 another one on tear gas excesses in Turkey.

The recent massive use of tear gas by a highly militarised local police force to quell riots in Ferguson, Missouri, has drawn renewed attention to a weapon that the Chemical Weapons Convention bans as a tool of warfare.

Anna Feigenbaum has just published a historical overview of tear gas in The Atlantic, starting with the fist use of a chemical weapon by the French in World War 1 exactly 100 years ago this month.

Perhaps most striking is her compilation and mapping of global tear gas use during 2013 (my screenshot):

20140817 A Year in Mass Tear Gassing

A PDF printout of the incidents she has listed runs for 19 pages.

Alas, if a riot control agent is used as a tool for law enforcement or domestic riot control purposes, then the Chemical Weapons Convention does not consider it as a chemical weapon and therefore falls outside its scope of application.

[Cross-posted from The Trench]