Whether it be mainstream or citizen journalism, a striking feature of photos from the protests in Turkey is the ever-present cloud of pale yellow gas lurking in the background or engulfing protesters, particularly in images captured after dark.
This flagrant use of tear gas, often as a first-resort, by these countries’ police services (with implied tacit consent of their governments) has caused outrage across the globe.
The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) recognises the serious health implications that can result from use of tear gas: ‘respiratory problems, nausea, vomiting, irritation of the respiratory tract, irritation of the tear ducts and eyes, spasms, chest pain, dermatitis and allergies’.
In Turkey, since 31st May, when environmentalists occupying Gezi Park were aggressively ousted by Istanbul police personnel, roughly 130,000 tear gas canisters have been deployed, almost depleting national stocks. This is an astronomical amount. However, it is not only the quantity that is of concern, but the manner and methods in which they have been deployed.
One protester has died after being shot in the head with a tear gas canister, there are reports that at least one person has died from over-exposure to the gas, and numerous individuals have head wounds from tear gas being released at short range (over 8000 people have been injured overall). There are also reports of tear gas being deployed into makeshift/temporary medical facilities.
The decision by security forces to fire tear gas into a medical facility is not only disturbing but directly contravenes international standards, which state that the gas should not be used in confined spaces. In their report on the situation in Turkey, Human Rights Watch have stated:
“The use of teargas in confined spaces, particularly against targets who pose no imminent threat to law enforcement or others, violates international standards on use of force as unnecessary and disproportionate”.
The Human Rights Foundation of Turkey also considers that:
“the use of [tear gas] amounts to torture and ill-treatment when used against people whose liberty has been deprived.”
In 2012 the ECtHR found for the first time, in Ali Güneş v. Turkey, that use of tear gas when the individuals are already under the control of security forces, in a restricted space for example, can amount to an Article 3 violation: torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. This case, which concluded only last year, was hailed as a step in the right direction in fights against tear gas usage, and the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims considered the judgement a warning to countries who are increasingly relying on this form of force.
In another ECtHR case later in 2012, Disk and Kesk v. Turkey, the Court found that Turkey violated freedom of assembly by disproportionate and unnecessary use of force, i.e. tear gas.
However, in Erdogan’s bid to end the occupation of Gezi Park a large number of people in a restricted space and with limited escape options, whose numbers also included children, were fired upon with rubber bullets and tear gas. Yes, we cannot say, as in Ali Güneş, that these people were already under the control of security forces, but the similarities are striking – and in both 2012 cases the court found violations.
Referring back to the example of tear gas use in a medical facility, which has significant similarities to Disk and Kesk, further violations of international norms appear to have occurred in Turkey. After protesters were forcibly evicted from the park many sought refuge and assistance in a nearby hotel that was being used as a temporary clinic, at which point police fired more tear gas into the hotel’s entrance.
“Pepper 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, para. 79)
Clearly in this case the security forces flouted these safeguards: firing tear gas at those who were seeking treatment after already having been subjected to tear gas, along with the medical professionals administering treatment. These actions also violate the UN Principles on the Use of Force, which requires security personnel who have resorted to force to ‘minimize damage and injury, and respect and preserve human life’ and ‘ensure that assistance and medical aid are rendered to any injured or affected persons at the earliest possible moment’. Additionally, the use of force in this case, where protesters posed no immediate threat to the public or police, was ‘unnecessary and disproportionate‘ – going against further stipulations in the UN Principles on Use of Force which only allow for violent means when absolutely necessary, ensuring that use is proportional to the situation at hand, and only in ‘self-defence or defence of others’.
What can be done?
This abuse of tear gas, which should only be administered in extreme circumstances, has shown an absolute lack of regard for the Turkish people by the state, the PM seemingly more interested in saving face, and saving Turkey’s stock market and hopes of EU membership, than he is about the well-being and concerns of his citizens.
But what can be done. After the initial outcry, felt both within Turkey and from the international community the PM promised an investigation, and so far four police personnel and four municipal workers have been suspended, and much of police’s actions have been blamed on new and untrained officers on the front line. The reluctance of security forces to hand over the policeman who shot a protester dead, despite his badge number being clearly seen in a video, appears to support arguments that police in Turkey act with impunity.
The suspension of eight people hardly seems proportional or an accurate depiction of events. Yes, individual officers may have acted independently but there are obvious cases of top-level decision making being behind some of the most contentious actions. An example, the forceable eviction of Gezi Park after previous apologies to environmental supporters combined with threats of branding any remaining protesters as terrorists. Additionally, recent praise of the police by the PM and promises to strengthen them further to deal with unrest more effectively hardly tallies up with claims that violence was as a result of a few rogue/inexperienced officers – and doesn’t instill confidence in there actually being a thorough investigation into what has taken place over the past few weeks, or into Turkish police practices overall.
Towards the beginning of June the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, announced his hope for an investigation into ‘excessive force’. But this lack of faith of a thorough investigation has prompted some, like the International Federation for Human Rights (FIHR) and the Human Rights Association (IHD), to call for a ban on exports of tear gas and other ‘crowd control’ equipment until a satisfactory investigation has been completed, and those responsible have been called to account. In the meantime Turkey has announced that is ordering 100,000 more tear gas canisters and 60 water cannon.
It is right that the international community should put pressure on Turkey to not only hold a thorough investigation into police practices over the course of these protests and bring those responsible to account, but to also reassess policing strategies in Turkey overall and ensure they comply with the international instruments they are party to. However, I think there is a tendency on the part of states to judge the actions of others without looking inward to their own treatment of protesters. We should not forget that in 2009 America unleashed ‘sonic cannon’ against G20 protesters, and used tear gas against those involved in Occupy. In our own country, horse charges have been used on peaceful student protesters, and large numbers (including children) have been kettled for hours in freezing conditions, and I think it’s safe to say we’ve all been left reeling after the revelations of undercover police behaviour in this week’s Dispatches.
With numerous reports of excessive police force (including tear gas) in the Brazil protests, and now protests in Costa Rica, it’s time governments around the world revisit the values and standards they’ve agreed to uphold, reassess current practices, reevaluate what sort of societies we want to live in, and recommit to law enforcement strategies that do not violate human rights or international standards.