on the world: a view on human rights
Last month, the Metropolitan police confirmed that following the riots in August 2011, its stockpile of plastic bullets, or baton rounds, had increased to over 10,000 by the end of the year; just prior to that, the Met had around 700 bullets. Through a freedom of information (FOI) request made by former Liberal Democrat member of the London Assembly, Dee Dorcey, the Met revealed that in 2010-2011 the use of plastic bullets was authorised 22 times. The use of plastic bullets is very much a British method of crowd control. Pioneered as a “safer” alternative to rubber bullets, they were first used in Northern Ireland in the mid-1970s. In that decade alone, over 40,000 plastic bullets were fired. This “safer” method claimed its first victim in 1975 in 10-year old Stephen Geddis.
Since then, 13 other people have died. Hundreds of others have suffered upper body injuries, been blinded or suffered brain damage, most often not in riot situations, and children in particular have been affected. Plastic bullets were not designed for crowd control and are only to be used when absolutely necessary. Although the former chief constable called for an end to their use in 2007, plastic bullet use has increased in the past couple of years, with over 350 rounds fired in June to July 2011 alone.
With the fresh rise in plastic bullet use in the North of Ireland and stockpiling across other parts of the UK, in the same week as the inquest into the death of Sean Riggs in police custody and the trial of PC Simon Harwood for the death of Ian Tomlinson, a press conference was held in parliament on Thursday 21 June, “Use of Plastic Bullets will Fuel Racial Tensions”, chaired by Labour MPs Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. Speakers included veteran campaigner on the issue, Clara Reilly, from the United Campaign Against Plastic Bullets (UCAPB), Paddy Kelly from the Children’s Law Centre in Belfast and Stafford Scott, from the Tottenham Defence Campaign (TDC), a supporter of the Mark Duggan family.
The UCAPB has been campaigning for almost 30 years against the use of plastic bullets in the North of Ireland and calls for an outright ban on the use of these “lethal and excessively dangerous weapons”. Clara Reilly, of the campaign, said that they were “dismayed” last year at news that plastic bullets could be deployed during the summer riots in England. Mrs Reilly said, “it is obvious there is much work to be done in local communities around racial tension and abuse, police accountability, poor housing, unemployment and how the promotion of human rights must become a policing priority.” She also expressed concern that the further escalation of the use of plastic bullets in the North of Ireland could put an end to the peace process.
Paddy Kelly of the Children’s Law Centre in Belfast expressed concern that at least one child will be murdered this summer by a plastic bullet. In 2010, a 17-year old suffered serious injuries. She described them as a serious breach of children’s rights and had only served to escalate tensions in the North of Ireland. She also expressed her worry that with the stockpiling of plastic bullets in the aftermath of the riots in England, the upcoming Olympics and rising racial tensions, plastic bullets could be used against black and Muslim youth this summer in England. She urged people in London to be vigilant “as the consequences are severe to bear”.
Stafford Scott of the TDC expressed concern that the government appears to have a greater interest in the police having and using plastic bullets than the police force itself. Mr Scott stated that in view of the recent riots, it appears that the government is well aware that its policies will fuel more unrest. He urged the government to rethink its strategy against protesters, as the use of plastic bullets, CS gas, water cannons and other heavy-handed deterrents to protest will not stop people taking to the streets to exercise their legitimate rights.
John McDonnell MP agreed with Stafford Scott’s analysis that there is a considerable political dynamic to this policing issue. Jeremy Corbyn MP said that under the current government there has been a move from policing by consent to policing by enforcement and that there is a security paranoia developing in the UK, making it easier for the police to access and justify large stores of such weapons.
The two MPs attending stated that they would take action on this issue. John McDonnell said that stopping the cuts and austerity measures is the only real viable alternative to preventing the type of social disorder such violent tactics are intended to quell.
The solution does not lie in arming the police or heavy-handed and dangerous policing but in dealing with the underlying causes of the increasing social unrest, embodied in the wide-sweeping cuts to public services, growing (youth and) general unemployment and the closure of facilities that foster social cohesion. Stockpiling these weapons creates hysteria and an impetus for their use, given their ease of access.
Recently, measures have been introduced further restricting the right to protest around parliament and severe sentences have been given to people taking part in student protests. Coupled with the austerity and privatisation agenda, the CEO of private security firm G4S also predicted this week that in five years’ time, large parts of the police service, a crucial public service, will be run by private firms. The prospect of unaccountable private “policemen” running around with plastic bullets is frightening.
In the North of Ireland, accountability has also been an issue with the public authorities. Families and individuals who have been affected have attempted to take legal action. Many court cases have been brought and while large amounts of compensation have been paid, an admission of wrongdoing in itself, only one policeman has ever been charged, in 1984 for the murder of John Downes; he was, however, acquitted. The police, army and government have not been held accountable in any way.
Plastic bullets are used elsewhere, including in Spain and the Occupied Territories. In spite of its use in the North of Ireland over the past few decades, there has been little reporting about this issue in the mainstream British media. Clara Reilly said, “the public has no idea of what plastic bullets are and what they can do, or they would otherwise be opposed to their use”.
© Aisha Maniar