Republican News · Thursday 26 July 2001

[An Phoblacht]

The human rights and wrongs of plastic bullets


In the hands of hostile and sectarian forces, the myth of the plastic bullet as defensive has literally allowed the British army and RUC to get away with murder
Brice Dickson, head of the Human Rights Commission, recently defended the group's failure to back calls for an outright ban on the use of plastic bullets by reminding us that RUC officers had human rights too.

According to two human rights campaigners, during a meeting with Relatives for Justice and the single issue United Campaign Against Plastic Bullets, the Chief Commissioner admitted that divisions within the Commission over the plastic bullet issue had left the group without a definitive position.

This ambiguity at the heart of their approach to plastic bullets, explained Dickson was generated by the fact that the Commission had an obligation to defend the human rights of RUC officers who were endangered by petrol bomb throwing crowds.

d it's a truth that might seem self-evident. RUC officers are human beings and they do have rights. But the notion that this somehow legitimates the use of plastic bullets is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the development and deployment of this deadly weapon.

Despite the portrayal of the plastic bullet as a defensive non-lethal alternative it is in fact often deployed in the field as an offensive and deadly weapon. You only have to study the detail of those who have been killed by rubber and plastic bullets to establish this pattern.

14-year-old Julie Livingston walking to the shops near her Lenadoon home and 12-year-old Carol Ann Kelly just a few feet from her own garden gate presented no physical threat to the British soldiers who killed them. Neither did 11-year-old Stephen McConomy who, in a display of bravado amongst his schoolmates, dared to place a toy tricolour on a Saracen and paid with his life.

Francis Rowntree, also 11 years of age, was standing at shops near Divis Towers when he was fatally injured by a rubber bullet that had been deliberately doctored with a torch battery to render it more lethal.

d then there was 10-year-old Stephen Geddis.

That summer, as many Irish children from the North still do, Stephen had travelled to America for a holiday. Away from the confines of a Catholic ghetto in a hostile sectarian state Stephen had enjoyed a few weeks in an environment where being an Irish child could be celebrated.

A local Midwest newspaper wrote of his visit. ``Peanut butter, root beer and sunburn are a few things 10 year old Stephen Geddis has been introduced to since arriving here last month. Peanut butter and root beer he loves - sunburn he can live without.''

``One of his most memorable experiences here was riding a bike, decorated with the colours of his country, in the South Shore Fourth of July parade. He has also ridden a horse for the first time here. ``I like all the horses here,'' he said, ``and the cowboys.''

A few weeks after returning home to Belfast Stephen was shot in the head with a plastic bullet and died three days later. His family said that for days after arriving home, Stephen had stayed in bed crying and pleading to be allowed to go back to America. He refused to go out to play until finally his parents insisted. He was fatally injured that same day.

Stephen had been standing with a half a dozen children around his own age that had thrown a handful of stones at a passing armoured vehicle. In South Dakota, Stephen had been `amazed' because people greeted him and ``I don't know who they are.''

The soldier who killed Stephen didn't know who he was either, he was just another child in a nationalist estate and his life was expendable. Stephen Geddis was the first child to be killed by a plastic bullet.

Next month marks the twelfth anniversary of the last child to be killed, Seamus Duffy. Seamus was killed because he was wearing a Celtic football shirt similar to that of another teenager earlier seen by the RUC throwing stones.

I don't know if 15-year-old Seamus Duffy was throwing stones at the RUC during an internment bonfire at the New Lodge Road half an hour before he was killed. But I do know that when Seamus was shot he was not.

Like most of the other victims Seamus offered no threat at all to the RUC officer in the passing armoured vehicle who killed him. At inquest, the RUC claim that Seamus was shot from a distance of over 40 metres was rubbished by the pathologist.

Medical evidence showed that Seamus had been shot from a close range of around 10 metres. Video footage that the RUC claimed identified Seamus as a `rioter' prior to the shooting (as if that somehow justified the shooting) was also dismissed. The teenager captured on video was wearing a similar but not the same Celtic shirt as Seamus.

d these are not the only examples of people arbitrarily killed by rubber and plastic bullets. Nora McCabe was on her way to her local shop when she was shot dead. John Downes was attending a peaceful rally when he was killed. Hundreds of other people have survived but sustained serious and sometimes life changing permanent injury.

Studying the circumstances in which people have been killed, the evidence is quite clear. Plastic bullets are often deployed as an offensive weapon, used in a punitive, vengeful and artibitary manner against some of the most vulnerable and defenceless people within our community.

d part of what makes this possible is the ambiguous nature of the technology and the perception it presents. It is this ambiguity, at the very heart of the weapon itself, which is reflected in Human Rights Commission's approach to plastic bullets. But it's an ambiguity based more on fiction than fact.

The definition of plastic bullets as non-lethal does not rest within the technology itself. Even the British government's own military scientists admit as much. In fact the latest development, the recently deployed L21A1, proved to be so deadly that initial test results were deliberately suppressed.

A publishable set to results was only achieved by the imposition of restrictive criteria that included a specific 30-metre range that had nothing to do with the likely range at which this weapon will be actually deployed.

Even deployed within the optimum conditions used by military scientists the impact energy of the new plastic bullet is twice that considered acceptable in the USA. Under the criteria used by the American military, the plastic bullet is a lethal weapon.

Similarly the status of the plastic bullet as a non-lethal alternative cannot be sustained in relation to the guidelines under which it is supposed to be deployed. With a cop out clause that allows the firing of this weapon in conditions that render it most deadly, the guidelines are little more than a smokescreen.

The introduction and continued use of plastic bullets depends on maintaining their image as a defensive non-lethal alternative to conventional weaponry. Within this mythology serious injury and death are by definition unintended and accidental.

By this measure the RUC officer or British soldier discharging this weapon is always `innocent' and their victim is always `culpable'. In the hands of hostile and sectarian forces, the myth of the plastic bullet as defensive has literally allowed the British army and RUC to get away with murder.

No British soldier or member of the RUC has ever been convicted in relation to this weapon. A recent study conducted by the Human Rights Commission confirmed that the RUC don't even keep proper records or carry out adequate investigations of incidents where plastic bullets have been fired.

So here we have it. A lethal weapon most often deployed against unarmed civilians, including children, by a discredited force with a history of sectarianism, with guidelines that undermine any meaningful mechanism of accountability. And Brice Dickson thinks nationalists should tolerate this in the interests of the RUC's human rights?

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