Infographics on less-lethal weapons, their misuse and documentation
All around the world, police rely on less-lethal weapons in order to manage large crowds including responding to protest action. These less-lethal weapons typically refer to stun grenades, tear gas canisters, shotgun and rubber bullets as well as water cannons in the South African context. While these weapons are often promoted as being safe to use, incidents of their misuse have caused grave injuries and in extreme cases, death.
This set of infographics has been developed with the purpose of equipping members of the public and the media with facts around the less-lethal weapons frequently used by the South African police, how they are supposed to be used lawfully and the risks from their misuse. The infographics have been developed to help members of the public and the media to identify unlawful conduct and use of weaponry. The infographics also contain information and guidance on how to document the misuse of weapons and the injuries sustained as a result. Finally, support for those affected and documentation of abuses is crucial for holding responsible officers accountable for their actions, as well as building a public record of abuses in order to inform and advance efforts to meaningfully reform the police.
In South Africa, we have seen examples of the members of the South African Police Service (SAPS) using weapons that they are not authorised for use in terms of the Criminal Procedure Act, 1977, nor under the SAPS National Instruction 4 of 2014 which governs the conduct of public order policing. The Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) reported in a briefing to the Western Cape legislature on 6 May 2020, that during the COVID-19 lockdown instituted in March, complaints against the police included reports of police using “sjamboks (whips), hammers and irons to assault people”. These are unlawful weapons in terms of South African law, but also under international human rights law governing the use of force.
During the nationwide lockdown, when increased attention has been given to the conduct of the police, excessive use of force and the misuse of less-lethal weapons is of great concern. There have been reports of police officers responding to crowd incidents with their sidearms which is unlawful under both South African and international human rights law. There are also reports of grave facial injuries from less-lethal weapons, including the loss of an eye as a result of rubber bullets, and the prolonged spraying by police of pepper spray into people’s faces and eyes, and in some cases in confined spaces. These examples are not a new phenomenon, however the brazen and frequent nature of these abuses, especially under the circumstances of a global pandemic, is a reminder of the toxic nature of policing in South Africa.
Any use of force by law enforcement officials must be in line with international human rights law and principles governing the use of force and with the right to an effective remedy. The principles include necessity, proportionality, legality, precaution and non-discrimination and the obligations of governments to ensure accountability. A properly‑functioning system of policing should be able to ensure that the use of force by the police falls within these legal parameters and that the police are always guided by the principle of precaution and avoiding the need to use force where possible, and that it is used only under circumstances that are deemed necessary and when exercised, in proportion to the threat posed. Far too often, we see police officers readily resorting to extreme measures of force and conducting themselves in a manner that shows little or no regard for human rights. By using these infographics as a guide to improper and unlawful use of less-lethal weapons and reporting any abuses we can all start holding the SAPS to account.