by Democrat reporter
THE LATEST version of the plastic baton round (PBR), the L21A1, is even more dangerous than its predecessor, accroding to a recent report published by Northern Ireland’s Human Rights Commission.
Just weeks prior to its publication, campaigners and human rights activists gave a guarded welcome to, as yet, unconfirmed reports suggesting that the government intends to phase out the use of plastic bullets by the end of 2003.
The report, written for the commission by the Omega Foundation, an independent organisation specialising in research into military, security and police technologies, concludes that the L21A1 travels faster and hits harder than the one it replaced. It also lacks accuracy, making it potentially more lethal.
Seventeen people have been killed by plastic baton rounds in the six counties since they were first introduced in the early 1970s and campaigners have claimed, despite government insistence to the contrary, that scientific evidence points to the L21A1, being more rather than less lethal.
The report concludes that ten per cent of the new PBRs caused injury compared with 1.14 per cent for the previous round, while the new weapon was 2.5 times more likely to penetrate the skin.
The report criticises the government’s refusal to release documentation identifying the risks associated with the weapon’s increased potential for ricochet and identifies specific problems with record-keeping and the accountability, both of which it describes as “flawed”.
“The official reporting of numbers of rounds fired by both the police and the army shows lamentable inconsistencies. Accountability for all firings would be greatly enhanced and assisted by forensically marking all baton rounds with a unique identifier which cannot be removed,” it says.
It also identifies that not enough has been done to find alternatives and suggests that there are fundamental flaws in the process selected to achieve this, including “inadequate independent input” into the work of the steering group tasked by the government with looking into ‘safer’ alternatives.
The report points to a link between the introduction of PBRs in the north of Ireland and their proliferation throughout the world.
“While some commentators have dismissed the idea that the Northern Ireland conflict... has become a laboratory for field testing new public order strategies and technologies, the fact is inescapable that less-lethal weapons like rubber bullets first deployed in Northern Ireland in 1970 have now proliferated all over the world.”
Commenting on the Omega report, chief Northern Ireland human rights commissioner Brice Dickson expressed his concern at its findings, particularly with regard to the potential danger to children.
“The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child had called for PBRs to be withdrawn from use in riot control,” he noted.
Although he stopped short of calling for an immediate ban, he urged the government “to urgently step up its search for safe alternatives, to make that research more independent, and to set a time limit for withdrawing the baton round”.
Clara Reilly of the United Campaign Against Plastic Bullets said that the report reinforced the view of campaigners that any timetable for abolition should start immediately. It should also “play a pivotal role in any negotiations on policing” as “it provides part of the framework that needs to be developed towards creating more human-rights-based policing practices and methods”, she said.
Earlier this year a report into the use of PBRs by British soldiers in the north called for video cameras to be used to film soldiers firing the weapon. The report, written by independent military complaints assessor Jim McDonald, revealed a big increase in the number of PBRs fired by soldiers last year — 85 in 11 separate incidents between January and October 2002 compared with just 17 fired throughout the whole of the previous year.
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