Posts Tagged U.S.

Tear gas: Is it a violation of human rights?

A recent European Court of Human Rights case finds that the excessive use of tear gas, especially when people are detained or deprived of their liberty, can amount to inhuman and degrading treatment

Police officers fire tear gas on Tahrir Square protesters in November 2011. Photo by Hossam el-Hamalawy, available via Flickr through Creative Commons License.

The use of tear gas by law enforcement officials against demonstrators and detainees is widely documented as a method of crowd control.  However, examples of its excessive use are occurring with alarming frequency, for example recently in Bahrain, the West Bank, Turkey and Honduras where the use of tear gas has lead to civilian deaths.

A number of IRCT member centres have been campaigning against the use of tear gas in their countries and in particular its use against peaceful demonstrators and people deprived of liberty which many human rights organisations consider amounts to torture or ill treatment.

The Centre for Prevention, Treatment and Rehabilitation of Victims of Torture and their Relatives (CPTRT) in Honduras has also raised its concerns about the use of tear gas by security forces, particularly in places of detention and against those demonstrating, such as the demonstrations that took place against changes to education in March 2011. . The issue was raised by the CPTRT during the recent visit of the UN Sub-Committee for the Prevention of Torture (SPT) to Honduras and the SPT confirmed that it would look into the issue.  The CPTRT also intends to ask the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights for its view on the use of tear gas in prisons and against demonstrators.

The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) has expressed its concerns over the use of such gases in law enforcement. The CPT considers that:

“… [P]epper spray [tear gas] is a potentially dangerous substance and should not be used in confined spaces. Even when used in open spaces the CPT has serious reservations; if exceptionally it needs to be used, there should be clearly defined safeguards in place. For example, persons exposed to pepper spray should be granted immediate access to a medical doctor and be offered an antidote. Pepper spray should never be deployed against a prisoner who has already been brought under control.” (CPT/Inf (2009) 25, paragraph 79)

The Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (TİHV/HRFT) has vast experience in treating people who have been exposed to tear gas in five of its treatment and rehabilitation centres for torture survivors in Ankara, Istanbul, Izmir, Diyarbakir and Adana. The HRFT decided to conduct further scientific studies on the physical effects of tear gas as its wide use by security forces during demonstrations; it has caused severe injuries and in some cases deaths from exploding bomb canisters and the inhalation of toxic chemicals used in the gas.

The HRFT (Istanbul Centre) has studied 64 cases of people affected by tear gas and evaluated the early side-effects of these chemical agents in these cases based on age, gender, psychological findings as well as other injuries. The research shows that complaints and physical side effects caused as a result of exposure to the tear gas chemicals were highest during the first three days following exposure.

The HRFT considers that “tear gas is a weapon derived from chemical agents” and that “the use of these agents amounts to torture and ill-treatment when used against people whose liberty has been deprived.”

A tear gas canister and rubber bullets used in Egypt to quell protests in June 2011. Photo by Maggie Osama, available via Flickr through Creative Commons License.

The recent decision of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in the case of Ali Güneş fully supports the HRFT’s position on this issue.

In the recent case of ALİ GÜNEŞ v. TURKEY (Application no. 9829/07), the ECtHR found for the first time that the use of tear gas against people whose liberty has been restricted can amount to a violation of Article 3 ECHR. The Court stressed that there can be no justification for the use of tear gas against an individual who has already been taken under the control of the law enforcement authorities.  Ali Güneş, a high school teacher and member of the Trade Union of Education and Science Workers (Eğitim-Sen), was in one of the thirteen allocated areas where demonstrations were allowed to take place during the 2004 NATO summit in Istanbul. He complained about having been sprayed with tear gas by police officers, even after being arrested. The incident was widely reported in the national press and Mr Güneş was able to produce as evidence a photograph published in the daily newspaper Sabah showing him between two police officers who were holding him by the arms, and one of whom was spraying his nose and mouth with gas at very close range.  He also relied on medical reports which showed that his eyes had been affected by the gas.

In its judgment, the Court referred to previous cases in which it had considered the use of tear gas for the purposes of law enforcement, and where it had recognised that its use can produce effects such as respiratory problems, nausea, vomiting, irritation of the respiratory tract, irritation of the tear ducts and eyes, spasms, chest pain, dermatitis and allergies.  Given the effects the gases cause and the potential health risks they entail, the Court considered that “the unwarranted spraying of [Mr Güneş’s] face in the circumstances described must have subjected him to intense physical and mental suffering and was such as to arouse in him feelings of fear, anguish and inferiority capable of humiliating and debasing him”. By spraying him in such circumstances the police officers subjected Mr Güneş to inhuman and degrading treatment within the meaning of Article 3 of the Convention.

The IRCT welcomes the clear indication from the European Court of Human Rights that tear gas should not under any circumstance be used against persons whose liberty has been restricted and considers that this sends an important signal to countries in the region that the excessive use of tear gas by security forces should not be condoned.

The outcome of the Turkish case should be of vital interest to other regions, where the oppressive use of tear gas is being used with alarming frequency, such as in Bahrain and Honduras.  As the CPT has stated, clearly defined safeguards should be put in place where the use of tear gas is required.  In addition, further protection against the excessive use of tear gas should be supported by more scientific research on the long-term effects of exposure to it, in particular to build on previous studies, such as those carried out by the HRFT and the US-based organisation Physicians for Human Rights.

The decision of the European Court in the case against Turkey, supported by an increased understanding of the long-term health effects of tear gas exposure, will give civil society organisations the increased ammunition needed to campaign against the excessive use of tear gas by law enforcement authorities.

Lea aquí (.DOC) la versión española

Rachel is interning at the IRCT with the Advocacy and Legal Team after completing her European Master’s in Human Rights and Democratisation; she is also a Qualified Solicitor.


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From our members: Rehabilitation in action

Editor’s Note: This post is a submission from IRCT member Florida Center for Survivor’s of Torture, one of many programmes within Gulf Coast Jewish Family Services (GCJFS) in the United States. It has also been cross-posted from their website, which one may find here.


Christy* is a refugee from Burma and, along with her family, a client of the Florida Center for Survivors of Torture (FCST). She and her family lived in a refugee camp for 12 years. Prior to living in the refugee camp, they endured many challenges.

In their village, many of their neighbours were forced to serve as porters for the military or pay the military a fine. As porters they would have to march with the military for months and were frequently caught in the midst of battle with rebels. Some of Christy’s family died while serving as porter and others were badly wounded. Christy’s father was forced to serve as a watchman for the army. His role was to alert the military if rebels were approaching; he was later accused of supporting the rebel troops and was beaten and tortured. He eventually fled and hid in the Burmese jungle near the border of Thailand. Three years later, the family was then able to reunite in Thailand.

When they arrived in the United States of America, each member of Christy’s family had a hard time adjusting. Everything was very different than in the refugee camp. Christy struggled in school. She could not graduate because of the language barrier and was referred to a GED program.

Christy and her family were referred to FCST six months after they were resettled. Zakira Causevic was assigned to be their Program Specialist. Zakira assisted the family with education, employment, transportation, interpretation and the process of applying for permanent residency.

From the beginning of their interactions with the FCST, Zakira noticed that Christy struggled with self confidence. As a client-centered, intensive case management program, one of the first interactions Christy had with Zakira was centred on creating Christy’s Master Service Plan – a list of goals she would like to achieve. During their discussions, Christy would give up on herself saying that she “could not do it”. Zakira explained that she was too shy. Together they set several goals: obtain a driver’s license, enroll in the GED class and find a job. Although Christy wanted to achieve these goals she continued to state, “I cannot do that”.

A volunteer was recruited to the family to help them to learn English. The volunteer also noticed that Christy did not have confidence and tried to be very supportive in helping her build her self esteem. With the help of FCST, Christy made steps to work towards her goals. Each time Zakira saw Christy, she encouraged her and celebrated her successes. Finally, to use Zakira’s words, “Christy made it!”

Now Christy has her driver’s license, found a job and is going to school to get her GED. Her new goal is to go to college and become a nurse. Clearly, Christy has gained confidence and self–esteem, and given all of the progress she’s made thus far, Zakira and the FCST staff can envision her achieving her new goals.

*Not her real name

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In Haiti – and U.S. – impunity must end

Jean-Claude 'Baby Doc' Duvalier was president of Haiti from 1971-1986, during which thousands of Haitians were brutally tortured, killed, or 'disappeared' during his 15-year regime. Photo under Creative Commons license, by a-birdie.

“Moving forward” and “learning lessons” cannot be done without holding perpetrators of torture to account

After 25 years in exile, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, the former ‘president for life’ responsible for the deaths of over 30,000 Haitians, returned to his country and was promptly put on trial.

However, much to the likely devastation of the survivors of his torturous regime and the families of victims killed during his term, he has only been charged with corruption and embezzlement. There are to be no charges for the torture, extrajudicial killings, and ‘disappearances’ that the victims of his crimes deserve to see him held accountable for.

And both expectantly and deservedly, the condemnations of the Haitian decision have come flooding in. From the Washington Post Editorial Board to the UN High Commission for Human Rights, the magistrate responsible for the decision has been unanimously vilified for allowing Duvalier impunity for his most heinous crimes and human rights violations. I agree that Duvalier should be held accountable and that this recent decision was rightfully worthy of condemnation.

However, a common from Haiti’s current president caught my attention: Asked about the Duvalier case, President Martelly told The Washington Post: “It is part of the past. We need to learn our lessons and move forward.”

President Martelly’s language is markedly similar to another leader a little to the north of the island nation. The current U.S. administration has refused to pursue an investigation or charges against top Bush Administration officials for allegations of torture committed during the so-called ‘war on terror’, with Obama saying in a statement that it is a “time for reflection, not retribution”. These crimes too have been swept under the carpet, despite international obligations to properly investigate and hold perpetrators to account.

Yet both Duvalier and U.S. government officials need to be held to account for their crimes. Sweeping the responsibility for these crimes under the rug not only fails the state’s obligations to the survivors and victims’ families; it perpetuates a cycle of impunity, and gives a free rein for torturers to continue.

  Tessa is a communications assistant at the IRCT.

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Monday News Updates

As I mentioned Friday, we at the IRCT Secretariat have been very busy the last few weeks – tomorrow is the first day of our annual Council Meeting, our governing board of representatives from 26 member centres around the world and three independent experts. Their role is to ensure the formulation and implementation of major IRCT policy, and includes the membership in the democratic process of the organisation. It is truly a gathering of the rehabilitation movement in support of torture victims.

We will be sure to provide a full report from our annual Council meeting, but until then, here are the most updated news from around the world on torture and rehabilitation.

Political changes may be under way in Burma, but we echo Amnesty International’s concern for the current political prisoners being held in horrendous conditions.

“Prison conditions in Myanmar fall far short of many international standards.  Food, water and medical care are insufficient; political prisoners are often held far away from their families; and many have been subjected to torture and other ill-treatment, including prolonged solitary confinement.”

Sarah Shourd ( left) her fiance Shane Bauer (right), and their friend Josh Fattal were arrested and detained after they unknowingly crossed the Iranian border on a hike through Kurdistan. Shourd writes in the New York Times of her torture experience with solitary confinement; she spent 9,495 hours alone in an Iranian prison cell leaving her with post-traumatic stress disorder. Available via Flickr, permission under Creative Commons license.

Sarah Shourd, one of the three hikers detained in Iran when they unknowingly cross the border from Kurdistan, has written about her torture experience with solitary confinement.

“It’s impossible to exaggerate how much the company of another human being means when you’ve been cut off from the world and stripped of your rights and freedom.”

Shourd calls on reviews of prison policies of solitary confinement, describing it as a torture with long-lasting impact on her life. Juan Mendez, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, has also called for a complete ban of the practice.

The U.S. is working on a deal with Afghanistan officials for the transfer of all detention facilities to Afghan control. However, among the reported issues holding up the deal – night raids and a timeline for the transfer – a UN report issued a few weeks ago documented ‘systematic torture’ in Afghanistan run prisons.

The Zimbabwean reports that the country’s High Court has ruled that two ‘thugs’ of Mugabe’s ZANU (PF) party who tortured a man who was a supporter of MDC during the 2008 political violence must pay the victim compensation for their crimes. The survivor reports he will use the funds to begin paying medical bills for his injuries. From a Zimbabwe human rights group (emphasis added by Editor):

The rights group commended the ruling by Justice Makone as a positive step towards promoting respect for human rights. “This serves to deter future violators of human rights thereby fostering a culture of accountability in the communities,” said the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum in a statement.

“The order serves not only to compensate Katiyo for the ordeal he suffered but also as an expression of the shared societal outrage at the ill-treatment he experienced. This is a positive step towards promoting respect for human rights and serves to deter future violators of human rights thereby fostering a culture of accountability in the communities.”

EU sees ‘important changes’ in Myanmar (AFP)
Myanmar political prisoners held in dog cells and denied water (Amnesty International)
Tortured by Solitude (New York Times)
Night raids, prison control stymie US-Afghan deal (Reuters)
High Court rules in favour of tortured MDC member (The Zimbabwean)

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