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Topic five - The use of "less-lethal" weapons


The term 'less-lethal' designates a wide array of weapons, ranging from the traditional police baton to encompass pepper spray, tear gas, electric-shock weapons such as Tasers TM, rubber and plastic bullets, water cannon, and acoustic weapons. The 1990 Basic Principles refer specifically to "non-lethal incapacitating weapons" in two of their 26 principles. This term is rarely used today, though because it is accepted that such weapons are not non-lethal in practice - they can, and do, kill. Thus, in 2018, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) encouraged the establishment of protocols "for the training and use of non-lethal weapons, bearing in mind that even less-lethal weapons can result in risk to life" (UNHRC, 2018, para. 15).

Principle 2 of the 1990 Basic Principles calls on governments and law enforcement agencies to "develop a range of means as broad as possible and equip law enforcement officials with various types of weapons and ammunition that would allow for a differentiated use of force and firearms". Among others, this should include "non-lethal incapacitating weapons for use in appropriate situations", with the aim of "increasingly restraining the application of means capable of causing death or injury to persons". Thus, the rationale for less-lethal weaponry is not only to effectively replace firearms but also to reduce the number of injuries inflicted during other instances of use of force by law enforcement officials.

The 1990 Basic Principles do not, however, unequivocally endorse use of less-lethal weapons. Principle 3 states that: "The development and deployment of non-lethal incapacitating weapons should be carefully evaluated in order to minimize the risk of endangering uninvolved persons, and the use of such weapons should be carefully controlled." The focus of concern is thus on the potential lack of discrimination, although the reference to careful control over the use of less-lethal weapons should be interpreted more broadly to encompass also the risk of death and injury to intended targets. At the time of writing, an initiative to develop a set of guidelines on less-lethal weapons in law enforcement is underway, entitled the 2018 Geneva Guidelines on Less-Lethal Weapons and Related Equipment in Law Enforcement.

Next: Topic six - The protection of especially vulnerable groups
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