Thursday, May 21, 2009

Activists question use of tear gas to stop riots

Demonstrators flee from a cloud of tear gas in Nairobi recently. Activists want it classified as a chemical weapon. Photo/CHRIS OJOW

Demonstrators flee from a cloud of tear gas in Kenya's capital Nairobi recently. Activists want it classified as a chemical weapon. Photo/CHRIS OJOW  

By JOYCE WANJA

Tear gas, that favourite anti-riot device used by the police, is now under scrutiny over whether it should be classified as a chemical weapon. From riotous football fans to protesting mechanics and university students, the gas has become the club of choice for law enforcers, but a conference in Nairobi on Thursday questioned this adoption.

“Its use is acceptable for law keeping purposes, but its effect should not contravene the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention,” Mr Benard Amoh, a senior official at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), said.

Temporary blindness

Tear gas irritates mucous membranes in the eyes, the nose, the mouth and the lungs, causing crying, sneezing, coughing, difficulty in breathing and, in extreme cases, temporary blindness.

Known as CS — after the surname letters of its American inventors Ben Corson and Roger Stoughton — it has been used worldwide to curb unrest, though its use has been prohibited under the terms of the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention.

“The OPCW discourages member States from activities prohibited by the convention, and from using riot control agents such as tear gas as a method of warfare,” Mr Amoh said. The convention is an international agreement which bans the development, production, accumulation, transfer and use of chemical weapons among member States.

Currently, 188 of the 195 States recognised by the United Nations are party to the CWC. Kenya became a member in 2007. Efforts to get a comment from Police spokesman Eric Kiraithe on Thursday were unsuccessful.

Kenya National Commission on Human Rights vice-chairman Hassan Omar Hassan termed the use of the gas as ‘illegal’ and ‘a violation of human rights’. The activist said there was a need to validate the chemical contents of tear gas and its effect on a person’s health.

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