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Can Tear Gas Be Used on the Battlefield?

Law enforcement agencies can make use of a weapon that the world's toughest military units are banned from deploying: tear gas. As strange as it sounds, the use of tear gas in war has been outlawed by the United Nations Chemical Weapons Convention, yet police officers may use it on the streets for riot control.

Tear gas causes short-term burning and itching in the eyes, mouth, nose, and elsewhere, and is seen as an effective way to quell rioting. Under the rules of the UN Chemical Weapons Convention, which took effect in 1997, tear gas is listed as a banned chemical weapon, except for "domestic riot control purposes." And indeed, in recent years, tear gas has been used against protestors in many cities around the world, including during last year's protests in the United States against police brutality and systemic racism.

Although the UN’s Chemical Weapons Convention prohibits the use of tear gas on the battlefield, police can use it domestically for “riot control.”.
Although the UN’s Chemical Weapons Convention prohibits the use of tear gas on the battlefield, police can use it domestically for “riot control.”.

Still, because of the controversy tear gas can cause, some U.S. cities such as Portland, Denver and Seattle have opted to at least temporarily ban its use. According to Jamil Dakwar of the American Civil Liberties Union, one problem with tear gas is its indiscriminate use. "It is considered a less-lethal weapon when it's used outdoors," he said. "In general, it could be lethal. In fact, there are incidents where people were killed by these canisters. The problem with tear gas is that it's also an indiscriminate weapon."

Some truths about tear gas:

  • Tear gas is actually not a gas but a solid mixture of chemicals that is combined with gas or water for dispersal.

  • Tear gas was created as a weapon during World War I, and was used by French and German forces.

  • Long-term exposure to tear gas can lead to blindness, glaucoma, respiratory illness, and even death.

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    • Although the UN’s Chemical Weapons Convention prohibits the use of tear gas on the battlefield, police can use it domestically for “riot control.”.
      Although the UN’s Chemical Weapons Convention prohibits the use of tear gas on the battlefield, police can use it domestically for “riot control.”.