Specter of Drones Firing Tear Gas on Crowds Worries Human Rights Group

Breaking up large peaceful gatherings with tear gas shouldn't be as easy as pushing a button, says the Remote Control Project.

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The tools that governments could use to contain public demonstrations by remote control — firing tear gas from drones, for example — are advancing at a troubling and unregulated rate, says a new report from researchers in the U.K.

These technologies are either fully automatic or semi-automatic, according to the report, and can be used at a distance from the target.

Without further study and regulation, these detached methods of crowd control could lead to serious human rights violations, the report says. “This could include the blanket application of significant quantities of [remote control agents] against large peaceful gatherings or demonstrations resulting in en masse infliction of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.”

The report, titled “Tear Gassing By Remote Control,” was commissioned by the Remote Control Project, a branch of the Oxford Research Group, a think tank partly focused on modern warfare and its long-term consequences.

Its publication comes as almost 200 member states are meeting in the Hague in the Netherlands at the annual Conference of the States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Conventions to discuss the progression of chemical warfare worldwide.

The Chemical Weapons Convention, an international arms treaty first drafted in 1992, forbids chemical riot-control weapons from being used in warfare, but sets only ambiguous requirements on law enforcement agents using them — in appropriate “types and quantities.”

“Our research has uncovered a range of companies around the world actively promoting delivery mechanisms to tear gas people by remote control,” the report’s author, Michael Crowley, said in a statement. “This includes devices that can flood prisons with tear gas at the flick of a switch; drones that can drop pepper spray onto the heads of those below; or ground robots that can fire large quantities of [remote control] projectiles at protesting crowds.”

The report includes detailed profiles of technology like a German company’s automatic tear gas machine triggered by a potential robbery, a U.S.-developed machine that releases gas into prisons to herd prisoners, a Chinese automatic grenade launcher, a U.S.-made “tactical robot” advertised as being ideal for “covert surveillance, security, SWAT, tactical response, and law enforcement,” and a Chinese tear gas projectile launcher.

Crowley warned that the unchecked progression of unmanned riot suppression technology could lead to abuse by non-state actors including terrorist groups, inappropriate use in warfare or abuse by law enforcement agents, the potential for large-scale human rights abuses, and the proliferation of autonomous weapons systems.

Top photo: Non-lethal tube-launched munitions systems.

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