The human rights and wrongs of plastic bullets
BY LAURA FRIEL
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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?