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‘Less-lethal’ weapons can kill and police misuse them for torture

    April 12, 2015

    Released 0:01 GMT on 13 April 2015

    Law enforcement agencies around the world regularly misuse so-called “less-lethal” weapons and equipment for torture and their use can also have deadly consequences, Amnesty International and the Omega Research Foundation said today as they launched a new briefing at the United Nations Crime Congress in Doha, Qatar.

    The human rights impact of less lethal weapons and other law enforcement equipment details the medical and other risks associated with a wide range of weaponry and equipment used in policing, including crowd control during demonstrations, as well as in prisons. And it recommends stricter controls or, in some cases, bans to stem future abuses.

    “This briefing exposes how police forces and prison officials have at their disposal a dizzying array of weapons and kit that, while known as ‘less-lethal’, can cause serious injury or even death,” said Marek Marczynski, Head of Military, Security and Police at Amnesty International.

    “In dozens of countries around the world, we’ve documented how police have misused and abused tear gas, rubber bullets and electric shock equipment, amongst many other dangerous devices, to quell protests and subjugate detainees.

    “Clearer standards are urgently needed for the selection, testing, use and evaluation of such equipment to ensure its use is in line with international human rights law and standards.”

    Amnesty International and Omega acknowledge the importance of developing less-lethal weapons, equipment and technologies, to reduce the risk of death or injury inherent in police use of firearms and other existing weapons.

    When used responsibly by well-trained and fully accountable law enforcement officials, less-lethal weapons can prevent and minimize deaths and injuries to assailants, suspects and detainees, as well as protect the police and prison officers themselves.

    But such equipment can have damaging and even deadly effects if it is not used in compliance with international human rights law and standards. It can also have a particularly harmful impact on some people, including the elderly, children, and pregnant women, or those with compromised health.

    Amnesty International has documented how law enforcement officials commit a wide range of human rights violations using such equipment – including torture and other ill-treatment in custody, as well as excessive, arbitrary and unnecessary use of force against demonstrators.

    The briefing covers five categories of equipment:
    •Restraints: thumb cuffs, fixed cuffs, leg irons and restraint chairs;
    • Kinetic impact devices: police batons and other striking weapons, spiked batons and kinetic impact projectiles including plastic bullets, rubber bullets, baton rounds and bean bag projectiles;
    • Riot control agents: chemical irritants such as tear gas and pepper spray, including those dispensed from fixed installation dispensers;
    • Electric shock devices: Tasers and other projectile electric shock devices, stun batons, stun shields and body-worn electric shock equipment such as stun belts;
    •Acoustic devices and other technologies used to disperse crowds: audible sound wave technology that emits a deterrent noise, as well as water cannon.

    In cases where the items have a legitimate use, the organizations recommend controls to prevent their misuse. In the case of new technology which is not yet adequately tested, suspension pending further research by independent experts is recommended. Lastly, the organizations call for prohibitions on equipment which has no legitimate purpose which cannot be achieved by safer alternatives.

    “Some of the equipment we’ve surveyed is worthy of a torture chamber and should be banned outright. Things like body-worn electric shock devices, spiked batons and thumb cuffs have no place in policing,” said Marek Marczynski.

    Less-lethal weapons and restraints have developed considerably since the adoption of some international human rights standards relevant to law enforcement. For example, since the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms were adopted in 1990, a range of ever more advanced weaponry and other technologies have come into use by law enforcement agencies around the world.

    “Despite the pace of development of these technologies, universal human rights principles still apply. Police may use force only when strictly necessary and to the extent required to carry out their legitimate duties. This applies to the use of all equipment, whether batons or Tasers or any other new technologies. States have a duty to ensure that police fully comply with those principles at all times, whatever equipment they are using,” said Marek Marczynski.

    With the exception of the USA and the European Union, the trade in security and law enforcement equipment is either unregulated or subject to laxer restrictions than the trade in conventional weapons. Amnesty International and Omega are calling for stricter controls, including a licensing system for transfers of law enforcement equipment to safeguard against its potential abuse by the end user.


    The United Nations Crime Congress is the world's largest and most diverse gathering of governments, civil society, academia and experts in crime prevention and criminal justice.

    It meets every five years to help shape the agenda and standards of the UN on crime prevention and criminal justice. The Doha Congress from 12-19 April 2015 will consider how best to integrate crime prevention and criminal justice into the wider UN agenda.

    Amnesty International will have a representative at the Doha Congress.

    Omega is a UK-based research organization providing rigorous, objective, evidence-based research on the manufacture, trade and use of military, security and policing equipment. For more information see:


    For further information, please contact: Elizabeth Berton-Hunter, Media Relations 416-363-9933 ext 332