A human rights group at the University of Toronto is calling for a ban on tear gas as a riot control agent, arguing police often misuse the chemical weapon and that it can often harm peaceful protesters or innocent bystanders.
In a report released Thursday, the University of Toronto’s International Human Rights Program (IHRP) calls for all levels of government to issue legislation banning the use of tear gas, to destroy current stockpiles of the chemical weapon and to halt all imports, exports and manufacturing of it.
“It has an inherently indiscriminate effect and is really abused against peaceful assemblies and against vulnerable populations,” Vincent Wong, a research associate at the IHRP and co-author of the report, told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview.
It’s because of the “indiscriminate” nature of tear gas that that the report states that it “harms everyone in its vicinity regardless of whether one is engaged in militant actions in a demonstration, protesting peacefully, or merely observing.”
The report also states that tear gas is frequently misused by law enforcement, including incidents of tear gas being used on peaceful protesters and misuse of tear gas guidelines, which state it should not be administered indoors or directly on someone.
Tear gas can cause severe irritation of the lungs, eyes, nose and mouth. It can cause crying, difficulty breathing and temporary blindness. The symptoms can last upwards of 30 minutes after exposure.
Long-term side effects of tear gas include severe eye injures, development of respiratory illnesses and damage to the cardiovascular system. A 1995 report from the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, found that one person dies for every 600 times police administer tear gas.
“The long-term (side effects are) now really only starting to come to fruition as medical health professionals have done more longitudinal studies,” Wong said. “What they’re showing is that there’s actually warnings of higher risks of blindness, permanent chemical burns in the throat and lungs, of respiratory failure that can lead to death, of increased risk of heart attack.”
There is also concern that the use of tear gas could increase the risk of contracting COVID-19 and spreading it, given the well-known increased risk of respiratory illnesses and the coughing and sneezing associated with its use.
In June, 1,288 American public health professionals signed an open letter urging law enforcement to halt the use of tear gas due to the increased risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19.
“Tear gas is not a low-risk weapon; instead, it can cause serious injury and have lasting effects, particularly for more vulnerable groups. This is exacerbated when it is misused by law enforcement officials,” the report states.
The use of riot control agents such as tear gas have been banned from warfare since 1997, but are still allowed for law enforcement in several countries.
“It’s really, really absurd when you think about that tear gas in war is even arguably an international war crime under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and yet you see so many different countries — the U.S. is the one that we see the most in media — use it on its own citizens and civilians,” Wong said.
According to the report, the use of tear gas has increased worldwide, to the point where it has become the popular option for crowd control during pro-democracy protestsin Hong Kong and most recently during the Black Lives Matter protests in the United States. It was also used during a similar rally in Montreal back in June.
“What we’re seeing is that tear gas is now being misused as a riot or crowd-control tool of first resort,” Wong said. “It’s just effective, so they just shoot tear gas whenever they think people are not going to disperse if we tell them to.”
In June, NDP MP Matthew Green began a petition to ban the use and manufacturing of tear gas in Canada, which has since amassed more than 9,300 signatures. The deadline for signature is Sept. 8.
“This is not just a foreign issue,” Wong said. “This is also an issue that we are talking about here in Canada and hopefully this (report) will be of some use in those discussions.”