Novichok between opinion and fact – Part 2: When alternative facts become blatant untruths

[Cross-posted from The Trench]

On 18 April 2018 the Executive Council of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) held its 59th meeting, which was wholly dedicated to the assassination attempt with a nerve agent of the Novichok family. The Technical Secretariat presented its classified full ‘Report on Activities Carried out in Support of a Request for Technical Assistance by the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (Technical Assistance Visit TAV/02/18)’. A summary released by the Technical Secretariat on 12 April, although lacking in detail, stated that:

  • Two OPCW designated laboratories confirmed that the three hospitalised individuals had been exposed to a toxic chemical;
  • Another two OPCW designated laboratories confirmed the presence of the toxic chemical in environmental samples;
  • The results confirmed the UK’s findings relating to the identity of the toxic chemical; and
  • The TAV noted the high purity of the agent because of the almost complete absence of impurities.

Russia’s unprecedented revelation of the identity of a designated laboratory in an investigation

Prior to the Executive Council meeting Russia caused an uproar when Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov publicly identified one of the designated laboratories involved in the analysis of samples (Spiez laboratory, Switzerland). In his address to the Assembly on Foreign and Defence Policy on 14 April, he also confirmed the identification of Substance A-234 (a Novichok agent) and furthermore claimed (from Russian via Google Translate):

Based on the results of the examination, the traces of the toxic chemical BZ and its precursors belonging to the chemical weapons of the second category in accordance with the Convention on the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons are found in the samples. BZ is a nerve agent temporarily disabling a person, psycho-toxic effect is achieved in 30-60 minutes and lasts up to four days.

This recipe was in the arsenal of the US Army, Great Britain and other NATO countries, there were no developments or accumulations of these chemical compounds in the Soviet Union and Russia.

The statement as such contains two errors.

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Novichok between opinion and fact – Part 1: Deconstruction of the Russian denial

[Cross-posted from The Trench]

Since the assassination attempt on Sergei and Yulia Skripal with a nerve agent now just over one month ago, so much has been written about ‘Novichok’; so much has been opined about what ‘Novichok’ is meant to be (if it exists at all); and so much smoke has been spewed about what the identification of ‘Novichok’ suggests about culprits. This blog posting is the first of several to look into a specific aspect of the discussions concerning Novichok in the hope of clarifying where certain positions come from and what factual knowledge exists about this group of nerve agents.

Facts have been scarce. In fact, as a member of the public with long-time interest in chemical and biological weapons, I know very little about what took place in Salisbury on 4 March. I still have to see the first statement from British authorities—government officials, police, scientists at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) at Porton Down—in what form the Novichok agent was delivered. Was it a liquid? A solid in powdered form? A binary concoction? Delivered in a gel or ointment? Anything else?

‘Novichok’ as we know the family of nerve agents today was researched, developed, produced and field-tested in sizeable quantities in the Soviet Union and at least during the early years of Russia as an independent state. Little else beyond this basic information given by some of the chemists involved in the armament programme is available. Those researchers are not always in agreement with each other, especially as regards the skill levels required to synthesise the agent.

Meanwhile, government officials from both the United Kingdom and the Russian federation have launched a war of hyperbole. London overstated the nature and quality of evidence from forensic chemistry; Moscow, amid a broad smoke-and-mirrors campaign, used the exaggerations to poke holes in the British narrative. Just like with allegations of chemical weapon (CW) use in Syria, Russia has released a barrage of denials concerning the assassination attempt in the UK through disaffirmation of any involvement, construction of spurious logic and citation of any ‘expert’ willing to entertain conspiracy theories. It furthermore rejects any outcome unfavourable to its world view and questions procedures and methodologies applied by investigative bodies. Moscow, however, never supplies any physical evidence in support of its claims.

Yet, over the din there are two steadfast Russian positions: (1) Russia is not responsible for the Soviet Union’s actions, and (2) CW declarations concern only ‘produced’ toxic chemicals for use in warfare. In the specific context of the CWC, it places the three Schedules central to the prohibitory regime.

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Geopolitical manoeuvring behind Skripal

[Cross-posted from The Trench]

On 4 April the Executive Council (EC) of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) will meet in a special session. Russia called the extraordinary meeting. It has been a month now since former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia had been exposed to a nerve agent in Salisbury. The United Kingdom (UK) government identified it as a member of the ‘Novichok’ family, once researched and developed by the Soviet Union. Russia is believed to have continued the programme at least during the first years after the breakup of the USSR. It has never come clear on the nature of the programme or identified the agents’ characteristics. As no other country has ever been associated with the Novichok family of agents, London’s finger-pointing at Moscow was not difficult.

War of loud words

Since the assassination attempt a war of loud words has erupted. The UK has continued with its investigation and called in the OPCW’s expertise with a view of validating its analyses of the nerve agent. By the latest indications, the results from the OPCW-certified laboratories will not be available before the middle of this month.

Meanwhile, London also launched a diplomatic offensive to isolate Russia internationally (for an overview, see the dedicated UK government web page), which so far has ended with tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomatic staff. The rhetoric strayed off course. The assassination attempt got linked to similar incidents over the past years and decades, Russia’s actions in its near-abroad and Syria, its cyber campaigns against the institutions of Western democracy, and the country’s more assertive stance against Western interests, particularly those of the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). And, of course, the post-penultimate British schoolboy’s meme had to be called forth for domestic consumption: a mention of Nazi Germany.

Battle royale for the internet’s heart and minds

The British government’s (quite necessary) quietness about the investigation, the dearth of factual information beyond some generalities, and the distraction-causing verbal digressions into unrelated issue areas presented Russia with an open playing field. It was an opportunity it could not, and did not ignore.

Beyond the stacks of concealing black smoke and initial ridicule spouted by the government-sponsored international media and its diplomatic representatives to the UK, OPCW and EU, Moscow stayed much more focussed on the Skripal case. It was testing messages fast, discarding the ones failing to gain immediate traction and pursuing those that got picked up. Together, they addressed several issues simultaneously to drown out or cast doubt over any possible counterargument. That Russian officials or media contradicted themselves or seemingly confessed to total ignorance about past chemical warfare programmes did not matter. Speed was of the essence to avoid a coherent ripostes.

So, they challenged the notion that Russia was the sole originator of Novichok agents; they denied that there had ever been a Novichok programme; they suggested that the agent came form the British chemical defence laboratories at Porton Down or from similar facilities in other European countries; they questioned the OPCW’s legitimacy in the investigation while embracing the procedures foreseen in the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) to discuss the matter; etc. They upbraided the UK government for not releasing details about the nerve agent while the investigation is going on. And then Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov proffered motive for the British using a Novichok agent against the Skripal family: covering up difficulties over Brexit.

However ludicrous some of the arguments, Moscow ultimately turned the tables on London. Russia now portrays itself as the victim of the attack because the UK was unable to guarantee the safety and security of its citizens, in addition to which it now refuses Russian consular access to Yulia. And exploiting both British silence on the heart of the matter and the waiting period for the OPCW test results, it called for an special session of the OPCW EC after having publicly released two sets of questions (1st set; 2nd set), some of which it could use to initiate the clarification process under CWC Article IX, 2. Quite a few of these questions Moscow has field-tested via its global megaphone. (A subset of questions Russia addressed to the French government too.)

Will Britain’s hand be forced?

How will the EC meeting tomorrow pan out? Difficult to say, but if the debates over Syria’s chemical weapon (CW) use offer any guidance, then the following broad lines may re-establish themselves: the Western countries will decry the violation of the CWC and seek justice; Russia will play out a geopolitical strategy based on nominal pledges of cooperation to influence the votes of members of the Non-Aligned Movement who are wary of being caught up in a new hegemonic struggle between Moscow and Washington.

Russia has definitely laid the groundwork for triggering Article IX, 2. But will it trigger it tomorrow? This is far from certain. Moscow’s core aim may be to place some of the key questions it has already publicised into the formal record, thereby forcing the UK to respond. Any reluctance or avoidance by London would feed a certain narrative, at least until the OPCW submits its own laboratory findings to the UK. That narrative will anticipate those findings; at a minimum it will place the British government under great pressure to release the analyses to other OPCW members, including Russia. That pressure might also compel the British government to follow OPCW procedures rather than pursuing the case through other diplomatic means, in which case Moscow’s gambit may already be anticipating crucial votes further down that path. (For an overview of the Article IX process, see my earlier blog posting Novichok and the Chemical Weapons Convention.)

Remains one question in all this: Where is Washington? в кармане?

Novichok and the Chemical Weapons Convention

[Cross-posted from The Trench]

Assassinations with nerve agents are rare. Very rare. The reason is simple: other means to eliminate a person are simpler and much more effective. The marginal benefit from using even some of the most toxic substances ever made by man is negligible. What is more, the attempt fails often, as Aum Shinrikyo experienced when trying to take out some of the cult’s enemies with VX before the 1995 sarin attack in the Tokyo underground. Last year’s murder of Kim Jong-nam, half-brother of North-Korean leader Kim Jong-un, also involved VX according to Malaysian authorities. However, the real perpetrator behind the two women who rubbed the substance in his face was quickly identified.

The surprise that the assassination attempt on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, UK on 4 March involved one of the Novichoks was not little. First, this family of nerve agents is relatively unknown. Outside specialised disarmament and HazMat communities few people would have been aware of its existence. Over 100 chemical structures are believed to belong to it, all related yet different. The group of chemical structures does not figure in the Annex on Chemicals of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).  Second, the substance was produced in any sizeable quantities in only one single country, the Soviet Union. Third, the required precursor chemicals and the pathways to synthesise the final agents are completely obscure to most of the public.

The UK government has formally accused Russia of the assassination attempt and expelled 23 Russian diplomatic personnel. Moscow vehemently denies the accusal and has retaliated by demanding that a similar number of diplomats leave the country. It furthermore denies ever having developed and produced Novichoks. The incident follows an already bitter stand-off between the West and Russia over Syria’s proven chemical weapon (CW) use that blocks effective UN Security Council action and splits the Executive Council (EC) of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). As the government of Prime Minister Theresa May has formally declared its intention to have the OPCW independently verify its analyses and share it with its international partners, the question is whether and how the international organisation can contribute to resolving the matter.

Ensuring compliance under the CWC

Beyond the CWC’s routine verification process involving declarations, assessments and inspections, Article IX ‘Consultations, Cooperation and Fact-Finding’ foresees procedures to resolve uncertainties about compliance or breaches of the convention. These procedures are consultations, clarification, challenge inspection and investigation of alleged use.

Consultation concerning anomalies

The CWC does not detail what consultations should entail, but views and encourages them together with information exchanges as one of the early (or low-key) diplomatic exchanges among states parties to resolve doubts or ambiguities about compliance.

According to a statement issued by the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office, on 12 March Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson summoned the Russian Ambassador to seek an explanation from the Russian Government. The statement strongly suggests that the step was undertaken under the consultative process foreseen under Article IX. It added that Russia provided no meaningful response.

Summary of the consultation procedure (Slide by JP Zanders)

Clarification of compliance concerns

If in doubt or concerned about compliance, a state party may seek clarification. A state party will address the initial request for clarification to another state party, who must reply within 10 days. Although not stipulated in the convention, a degree of expectation exists that the latter would supply supplementary information (i.e. beyond what is available from, for instance, annual declarations or routine inspections) to address the concern.

In case the reply does not resolve the concern, the requesting state party may call for assistance from the EC, which must use its authority to lend weight to the request, including through forwarding the request within 24 hours. The state party to whom the clarification request is addressed has once again a maximum of 10 days to respond. If the replies still do not satisfy, the requesting state party my next request the EC to obtain further information, in which case it may (not ‘must’) decide to set up a group of experts to examine all available information and reports and submit a factual report. Although the group of experts can draw on previous inspection reports, it is in no position to launch its own inspection procedure.

After either of the two previous steps, the requesting state party may call for a special session of the EC, which then has the decision authority to ‘recommend any measure it deems appropriate to resolve the situation’. Although not stated explicitly in Article IX, those measures would presumably include obtention of further information or persuasion of the targeted state party to resolve the presumed violation in accordance with the CWC. If the requesting state party remains unsatisfied with the response, it may call for a special session of the Conference of States Parties (CSP) 60 days after the submission of the request for clarification to the EC. The CSP is to consider and may take any measure, which, as in the case of the EC, remains unspecified in the convention.

It is important to note that the launch of a clarification procedure does not require the outcome of routine inspections, but inspection reports may trigger additional requests for information. It should also be noted that the procedures described above do not affect the requesting state party’s right to call for a challenge inspection, nor are they affected by the conduct of a challenge inspection.

Summary of the clarification process (Slide by JP Zanders)

Challenge of non-compliance

Challenge inspections are the third tool outlined in CWC Article IX. It consists of a short-notice inspection at any site (irrespective of whether it has been declared or not) in a state party. Once the OPCW has authorised the challenge inspection the targeted state party has no right of refusal, but it can invoke the technique of managed access through which OPCW inspectors may be denied access to certain parts of the site. Managed access cannot be implemented in such a way that inspector access to the site as such is denied. However, irrespective of the outcome of the managed access negotiations between representatives of the challenged stated party and the OPCW inspectors, the latter retain full right to interview any staff member of the site (and thus possibly obtain relevant information about the areas to which they have been denied access).

Although a challenge inspection can be requested at any stage of consultation of clarification processes, the CWC encourages states parties to view the tool as an instrument of last resort.

Summary of the challenge inspection process (Slide by JP Zanders)

Investigation of alleged use

Part XI of the Verification Annex details the process of investigating the alleged use of CW or the alleged use of riot control agents as a method of warfare. In case the alleged use involves a state not party to the CWC, then the Director-General of the OPCW will closely cooperate with the UN Secretary General.

The procedure is applied (and has been further developed) with respect to the many allegations of chemical warfare in Syria. It is less relevant to the Novichok case.

Pathways to resolving the Novichok matter

How the investigation of the Skripal assassination attempt plays out will largely depend on the next key decisions by the UK government. The OPCW experts travel to the UK under Article VIII, 38(e), which qualifies their activity as a ‘Technical Assistance Visit’ to help with the evaluation of an unscheduled chemical (the Novichock agent) is not listed in any of the three schedules in the Annex on Chemicals).  They will likely visit the sites of investigation and collect their own samples (if for no other reason than to validate any laboratory samples they may receive), take all materials and documents related to the forensic investigation back to the Netherlands where the sample will be divided up and sent to two or more designated OPCW laboratories. (The list for 2017 can be consulted here.)

After having received the report, the UK government may opt to pursue the case using its own diplomatic means, possibly together with its allies, or it may decide to invoke one of the procedures outlined above, the most likely one being the clarification process. Given the current level of political rhetoric and the earlier summons of the Russian Ambassador, consultations will have little utility left. To call for a challenge inspection the UK will need to have extraordinarily precise information about the production or storage location (which might be difficult if, for example, forensic analysis points to recent, small-scale synthesis of Novichok or to a chemical structure different from those associated with the Soviet programme).

At present the outcome of any one of the procedures is difficult to foresee. Neither the clarification process nor challenge inspection option have been invoked previously. Moreover, even though the CWC may at first sight seem to suggest a hierarchy among the different procedures in terms of increasing stringency or steps in an escalatory process, each one can be pursued independently. They may also be invoked in succession, or they can run in parallel. One procedure is not necessarily a prerequisite to another one.

Central to the understanding of the procedures is that the OPCW, as an independent international organisation dedicated to overseeing the implementation of the CWC, provides a forum for consultation and cooperation among states parties, also in matters concerning compliance or conflict resolution.

Tear gas from the trenches into city streets

Book Review

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.

In conclusion

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.


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.