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Yes, Tear Gas Being Used in Ferguson Is Banned in Warfare — But Not in War Zones

Much has been made of the fact that international accords outlaw the use of tear gas in war — but it's more complex than that.
Photo by JB Forbes/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/AP

In the summer of 2001, I was tear gassed by the United States Army.

Unlike the people in Ferguson, however, I signed up to be gassed. Not directly, but as a soldier — being exposed to CS gas (more commonly known as tear gas) was part of basic training. My fellow recruits and I filed into a shed, where we all donned gas masks. There were no tear gas canisters thrown in; the drill sergeant simply dropped a CS tablet on top of a burner in the middle of the room.


We then had to remove our masks and sound off with our name, rank, and Social Security number to ensure that we didn't just hold our breath. The goal was to teach us how well the gas masks worked. The drill sergeant, who'd built up a tolerance to CS, simply walked around the room. The rest of us all choked and spluttered until we were let out of the shed.

Tear gas sucks.

And as part of the police response in Ferguson, it has done nothing except make the situation worse. Amid all the attention that's been paid to the use of tear gas in the city, some news outlets have pointed out that tear gas is banned from use in international warfare. It seems shocking that a substance illegal in foreign wars is used legally against American citizens on American soil. But whatever the use of tear gas in Ferguson may be — deplorable, for starters — its use is legal there and in war zones.

Jesse Jackson discusses Ferguson with VICE News. Read more here.

The accords that deal with the use of tear gas also forbid things like herbicides and chlorine "as a method of warfare." But the current Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) that entered into force in 1997 permits use of many banned-in-warfare chemicals for "industrial, agricultural, research, medical, pharmaceutical, or other peaceful purposes." Tear gas, meanwhile, is allowed for "law enforcement including domestic riot control purposes."

And so that distinction, "as a method of warfare," is important. In 1975, America agreed not to use herbicides and riot-control agents "as a method of warfare" while continuing to use herbicides to clear vegetation around military facilities and riot-control agents to deal with disturbances.


For example, if an American facility used herbicides to clear vegetation from its immediate defensive perimeter, that would be acceptable under the CWC. What would not be allowed is the use of that same herbicide to kill off massive amounts of vegetation in an effort to deny cover to the enemy. Similarly, if a crowd in Afghanistan was considered hostile, and lethal force needed to be avoided, American soldiers would legally be able to use tear gas.

Of course, that policy gets complicated when dealing with a counterinsurgency in which so much of the conflict takes place among the general population. As a result, it would be highly unusual for American forces to use tear gas on foreign soil.

Tear gas, then, isn't banned from war — it's banned as a way to wage war.

VICE News's raw coverage from Ferguson. Watch it here.

Ferguson needs to drive the national debate about the use of tear gas by police, about police methods in general, and about how police agencies across the country have evolved since 2001. This is the latest battle in the metaphorical war waged by the justice system against minorities in the United States, and correlating police actions in Ferguson to military actions in non-metaphorical war zones distracts from what Ferguson is telling us about race and law enforcement.

Follow Gary Owen on Twitter: @ElSnarkistani