VERIFY: Tear gas is prohibited in war

A USA Today fact-check on the legality of tear gas for crowd control fails to provide adequate context to explain why the chemical agent is prohibited in war. It falsely reinforces a social media narrative that implies the prohibition on tear gas’ use in war is ipso facto proof of its supposed inhumane characteristics.

BACKGROUND: A June 2020 social media meme claimed tear gas was banned as a weapon of war. The meme formed part of a larger social media narrative which implied that tear gas’ wartime prohibition was ipso facto proof  of its supposedly inhumane characteristics.

THE CLAIM: In a June 6, 2020 fact-check of the meme, USA Today writes that the “use of tear gas at recent protests has brought forth frustration and turned into a political debate, stirring controversy on why police officers are allowed to use tear gas on civilians but not during war.” The newspaper goes on to cite several sections of the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention showing that tear gas is banned in war, but permitted for riot control, and then abruptly ends its article.

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INVESTIGATION: As noted by both USA Today and the Red Cross’ database of international humanitarian law, Article I of the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention prohibits the use of tear gas or other riot control agents in warfare. As both also note, the convention goes on to establish that tear gas “may be used for certain law enforcement purposes including riot control.”

In the article, USA Today cites several short passages of international law and then quotes a physician regarding occasional side effects that can result from exposure to tear gas. It fails, however, to explain the underlying rationale behind the prohibition on the use of tear gas in war and why the prohibition does not apply to crowd control.

The primary reason tear gas was prohibited in war, and not in civilian application, was due to concerns that its use might trigger a security spiral in which an enemy responded to the use of non-lethal gas with lethal gas, such as nerve or mustard gas. As explained in the 2014 text A Commentary on the Chemical Weapons Convention:

This undertaking was added to the text of Article I as a separate provision at the very end of the negotiations. It was a reaction to concerns raised by mostly non-aligned developing countries that riot control agents (RCAs) might be considered for use by military forces. In history, chemical agents like harassing agents (‘tear gas’) have been intensively used in armed conflicts, often leading to escalation and the use of more lethal chemical agents.

This explanation is affirmed by chemical weapons specialist Dr. Marc-Michael Blum, former head of laboratory for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and a reserve officer in the German armed forces, who is quoted in Chemical & Engineering News:

… certain chemical agents may only be used for riot control when officers give people adequate warning before releasing the agents and people have a reasonable route to escape any gas. Neither of those conditions makes sense in a battlefield setting, which is one of the reasons tear gas and pepper spray are banned in warfare, Blum says. He adds that the ban in warfare helps prevent conflation of riot-control agents with more deadly chemical weapons.

A second reason guiding the prohibition of tear gas in conflict was couched in the observation that tear gas was rarely used just to disperse the enemy but was more frequently part of a two-pronged assault whose ultimate objective was lethal an application far different than its civilian use. Writing in the January 1972 issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Dr. Philip A. Karber, later recognized as one of America’s most prominent experts in the Russian armed forces, explained:

… [those] favoring the prohibition of tear gas in war point out that while its domestic use in riot control does save lives, the use of tear gas in Vietnam has been employed to drive the enemy from caves and bunkers—not to save his life but to make him more vulnerable to conventional firepower.

RATING: USA Today‘s fact-check correctly notes that tear gas is banned in war but exempted for use in domestic riot control situations. The fact-check, however, is perfunctory and fails to add context that would disabuse the reader from the incorrect conclusions implied by the meme. It, therefore, acts to reinforce the false social media narrative underlying the meme, which implies the prohibition on tear gas’ use in warfare is ipso facto proof of its inhumane characteristics. We consider the USA Today article to be TRUE but LACKING ADEQUATE CONTEXT.

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