Labour urges ban on riot control gear exports

Harry Lye 4 June 2020 (Last Updated June 4th, 2020 12:30)

The Labour Party is urging the UK Government to ban the export of non-lethal riot control weapons exports to the US in light of the response to ongoing protests over the death of George Floyd.

Labour urges ban on riot control gear exports
Tear Gas directed at protestors in Minneapolis. Image: Dan Aasland/ Flickr.

In a letter, Labour Shadow International Trade Secretary Emily Thornberry said that ‘it would be a disgrace for the UK’ to supply the Trump administration with types of equipment being used to suppress protests taking place across the US.

Last year, the UK’s Department of International Trade licensed the export of tear gas, riot shields, and anti-riot munitions, including rubber bullets, to the US. Police in the US have come under intense criticism for their heavy-handed response to the protests, which have also seen the National Guard and active-duty military personnel deployed.

In one video circulated on social media a US National Guard medevac helicopter was used reportedly to threaten protestors prompting the Secretary of Defence Mark Esper to order an inquiry as to why the helicopter was flying so low above protestors.

Under UK export rules, the government cannot approve the export of goods that might be used for internal oppression, such as to quell peaceful protests.

In her letter, Thornberry wrote: “At a time when Donald Trump is gearing up to use the US military to crush the legitimate protests taking place across America over the murder of Black civilians, it would be a disgrace for the UK to supply him with the arms and equipment he will use to do so.

“If this were any other leader, in any other country in the world, the suspension of any such exports is the least we could expect from the British government in response to their actions, and our historic alliance with the United States is no reason to shirk that responsibility now.”

Thornberry’s letter asked the government to “a. Publish a comprehensive list of all current export licences to the USA of riot control projectiles and equipment, along with all available end-user data to clarify who has purchased these items and for what declared purpose within the last five years; and

“b. Suspend all existing licences and halt the issue of any new licences for the export of riot control projectiles and equipment to the United States until you have determined whether any of these items are being used in response to the ongoing protests, or risk being used in the coming days if the US military is deployed as part of that response.”

Thornberry’s letter added: “Indeed, because our alliance is above all based on the values we share with the American people, that is all the more reason why we must not supply arms and equipment that Donald Trump is willing to use to attack his own people, in total contravention of those values.

“The British public deserve to know how arms exported by this country are being used across the world, and the American public deserves the right to protest peacefully without the threat of violent repression.”

Responding to a question in Parliament on the export of riot-control equipment, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: “All exports are conducted in accordance with a consolidated guidance and the UK is possibly the most scrupulous country in that respect in the world.”

Tear Gas and the Geneva Protocols

A highly visible response to the protests has been US police forces use of tear gas to disperse protestors. Tear gas is a chemical weapon that targets the eyes, nose and mouth causing eye irritation and respiratory pain and in some cases has been known to leave its victims blind.

Despite being commonly used by police forces to disperse protestors, the weapon is banned internationally for use in warfare under the Geneva Protocols which prohibit the use of “asphyxiating gas, or any other kind of gas, liquids, substances or similar materials” in conflict.

Commenting on the effects of tear gas experienced during training, a former US Marine said: “My eyes burned, my face burned, but I could breathe. Drill instructor made everyone stand up straight, heads up and take a deep breath. Lungs on fire, eyes ears, nose, everything was on fire. The door opened and we had to walk out in single file. I could barely see as my eyes were barely open. The sunlight hurt almost as much as the gas. Coughing and gasping for air I stumbled out onto the grass. I poured my canteen of water into my eyes and all over my face. My sinus cavity had drained entirely, with long massive trails of snot down to the ground. Slowly the stinging subsided and I was able to breathe a bit better. I laid back in the grass with a fresh canteen to drink and continued to rinse the gas off of me as it seemed to be in every fibre of the fabric.

“Feeling better, I got up to watch the next group go in and laugh at them when they came out. Tear gas is chemical warfare. Don’t think otherwise, and don’t let someone tell you it only makes you cry.”