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'Controversy over rubber bullets isn't new - I watched an RUC officer fire one point blank at Sean Downes'

The UN has said these ‘less-lethal’ weapons should be used as a last resort, but this is often not the case, Mike Chinoy writes.

Mike Chinoy

AS AMERICA WAS convulsed by protests and violence following the police killing of George Floyd, plastic and rubber bullets were increasingly used by security forces to attack or disperse demonstrators.

There were many injuries, including of journalists covering the events.

But controversy over the plastic bullets is hardly new. Indeed, for anyone in Northern Ireland who lived through the Troubles, it will be intimately familiar. The plastic bullet was an invention of the British security forces, developed in the early 1970s to deal with disorderly crowds, and Northern Ireland became something of a laboratory for their use.

As a CNN correspondent back then, it was something I witnessed myself. On 12 August, 1984, I stood with my camera crew outside Sinn Féin headquarters in West Belfast and watched a member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary fire a plastic bullet at point blank range into the chest of demonstrator Sean Downes.

He died as our camera recorded the scene. He was not the first, or the last, victim of a plastic bullet.

Permanent brain damage

Four inches long, one and a half inches in diameter, and weighing five ounces, the plastic bullet had been designed as a less lethal tool for riot control than so-called live bullets, able to deliver a knock-down blow without entering the body. Meant to be fired from a distance and below waist level, it was often the weapon of first resort for security forces in breaking up demonstrations or disturbances.

Fired from close range, however, the plastic bullet was deadly.

As the horrifying cases piled up – people killed, blinded, suffering skull fractures, permanent brain damage, ruptured kidneys, or severe haemorrhages – the anger and alienation of the North’s Catholic community, which felt itself to be a particular target, grew, exacerbated by the unwillingness of the authorities to deal with the issue.

bloody-sunday-prosecutions A rubber bullet gun, with rubber and plastic bullets, displayed at the Museum of Free Derry. Source: PA

In my new book Are You With Me? Kevin Boyle and the Rise of the Human Rights Movement, a biography of the late law professor and early leader of the Northern Ireland civil rights movement, I recount Boyle’s involvement in a campaign in the early 1980s to ban plastic bullets.

It was just one of many cases in which Boyle was ahead of his time. A strong advocate of using the law to press for change, he had brought the first individual cases on behalf of people mistreated while being interrogated in detention by the security forces in Northern Ireland to the European Commission of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

He had represented the widow of a man shot and killed by soldiers after they had issued nothing more than a verbal warning to stop. He had sought to use the Strasbourg machinery in an ultimately unsuccessful effort to mediate during the 1981 IRA hunger strikes. And he was the lead lawyer in the case which led the European Court of Human Rights to decriminalise homosexuality in Northern Ireland.

Moved by the plight of victims like 15-year-old Derry schoolboy Paul Whitters, who died after being hit in the head by a plastic bullet fired by a policeman, (and whose death was ruled ‘not justified’ in an official inquiry in 2007), Boyle worked with two activist priests in Belfast, Fr Raymond Murray and Fr Denis Faul, to mobilise popular opinion for a ban on plastic bullets,

“I don’t exaggerate,” Boyle wrote to a friend, “when I say the issue of plastic bullets and their misuse is an even worse scandal than interrogation was in the early 1970s. It isn’t even the deaths and injuries, but the complete lack of response by the authorities. Déjà vu might be your feeling when you hear of no prosecutions, inadequate investigations, and so on. No one wants to know, basically.”

Potentially lethal

At an international tribunal the two activist priests organised in Belfast, with participants from Britain and the US joining concerned local citizens, Boyle submitted an eight-page paper in which he argued that the policies of the British army and Royal Ulster Constabulary governing the use of plastic bullets raised serious legal questions.

The paper began by taking issue with the government’s use of the antiseptic-sounding term ‘baton rounds’ to describe the bullets. This, he noted, was deliberately being done to portray the plastic bullet as “defensive in nature and restrained in its capacity to cause injury”.

In contrast, the much more accurate term ‘bullet’ suggested “an object potentially lethal in its intent and notoriously liable to cause injury to innocent and uninvolved people”.

Categorising the plastic bullet as a lethal weapon, he wrote, “has a bearing on the legal position”.

Boyle argued that soldiers and police and those who command them could not be in any doubt about the capability of plastic bullets “to kill, maim, and disfigure”, raising the question of whether in legal terms it was justified in the circumstances.

“If the force used was excessive, then a crime has been committed.”

He noted that in almost all the situations where plastic bullets were usually fired in Northern Ireland – soldiers or police facing crowds of youths throwing rocks, bottles or petrol bombs – the threat to the security forces was not sufficient to justify using such a potentially lethal weapon.

He cited numerous examples of a “very clearly unlawful use of these weapons in non-riot situations”, and was sharply critical of military and police commanders for failing to implement strict rules of engagement to prevent such behaviour.

Mounting pressure

Following the tribunal, Boyle enlisted colleagues and students from the Human Rights Centre he had founded at NUI Galway to work on a submission about the issue for the UN’s Subcommittee on Human Rights in Geneva.

He had no illusions that this step, or the appeal from the Belfast gathering, would solve the problem, but he was convinced that, as he wrote to a friend, “raising the issue of plastic bullets internationally” would create additional pressure on the authorities to curb such abuses.

As a long-time analyst of what he and his collaborators Tom Hadden and Paddy Hillyard called the “legal control of political violence” in Northern Ireland, Boyle was keenly interested in the behaviour and policies of the army and police.

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The misuse of plastic bullets was, in his view, just one example of how the laws governing the use of force by the security forces were either inadequate, unclear, loosely enforced, or ignored. This was not only leading to unnecessary deaths and injuries, but, he believed, was adding to the major obstacles in the face of any solution to the continuing violence.

As pressure mounted, in 1982 the European Parliament called on member states to ban the use of plastic bullets. But in Northern Ireland, the security forces continued to use them.

By the time of the Belfast peace agreement in 1998, nearly 120,000 rubber and plastic bullets had been fired, with 17 people killed, eight of them children, and many more injured. Even though the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission in 2003 repeated a call “to withdraw the baton round from Northern Ireland,” it remains in use.

As we have seen from recent events in the United States, plastic and rubber bullets continue to cause horrific injuries, especially if, as has been the case, they are fired indiscriminately or at close range.

Indeed, only this year, the United Nations released a set of protocols warning that the use of less-lethal weapons should be treated as “a measure of last resort”. That was often not the case in Northern Ireland, and it has clearly not been the case in the United States.

Kevin Boyle was among the earliest human rights experts to warn about the dangers of plastic and rubber bullets. He was hardly the last. The battle to limit or ban their usage he helped to launch near 40 years ago goes on.

Mike Chinoy is a senior fellow at the US-China Institute at the University of California and former CNN Asia Bureau Chief.

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