White-Washing the Water Cannon: Salesmen, Scientific Experts and Human Rights Abuses


Police using tear gas and water cannons at Gezi Park, Istanbul. Photograph by Alan Hilditch

by Anna Feigenbaum

Scrubbing away the white-wash of ‘less lethal’ riot control reveals a history littered with humanitarian disasters, weaponisation, inadequate testing, and corporate profiteering. What does a ‘public consultation’ on water cannon mean when this history is hidden?

In a letter dated Jan 6, 2014, London Mayor Boris Johnson declared that he would support—both politically and financially—the Metropolitan Police’s request for water cannons. The 2011 summer riots in England prompted the Home Office to look into the possibility of equipping police forces with water cannons, already actively deployed in Northern Ireland and used in countries across the world to disperse and demoralise crowds.

Since Boris Johnson’s support for London’s Metropolitan Police went public, hundreds of news stories and thousands of blogs, tweets and Facebook posts have taken up sides. The gruesome image of 69-year-old Dietrich Wagner with his eyes shot out by a water cannon went viral. Giving voice to the injuries he faced, Dietrich took part in a rally and public meeting last Monday, held in London as part of a month long public consultation period.  “Water cannons are not democratic,” Dietrich told the Independent, “They are instruments of violence. They are considered much more harmless than they actually are.”

Informed engagement?

Along these lines of debate last Monday’s public meeting unfolded, rehashing the Op-Eds and comment pieces of the past few weeks. Water cannons are needed for security vs. Water cannons lead to the further militarisation of police. Water cannons seem relatively safe vs. Water cannons are always inherently dangerous. These central positions mark out the terrain of existing public opinion. But how much has the public really been informed about water cannons?

The little that is known about water cannons and their hidden history is filtered through the economic and political interests of a burgeoning industry in ‘less lethal’ technologies. The uprisings that swept the world in 2011 have contributed to as much as a 300% expansion in international riot control sales for leading corporations like U.S. Combined Systems, Inc. and Brazil’s Condor Nonlethal Technologies. These same profit interests have paved the road to the UK’s imminent decision on water cannons.

From Northern Ireland to Indonesia, for decades the procurement and deployment of water cannons has been caught up in dodgy partnerships and practices. But to keep the market in less lethal technologies going, salesmen, lawyers and defence-sponsored scientists have been busy whitewashing the legal, medical and criminal history of riot control.

From Northern Ireland to the mainland

The current push for water cannons to be made available in London is backed by their use in Northern Ireland—England’s testing ground for new riot control technologies. Derry was the first site of water cannon usage in Northern Ireland, as well as home to the UK’s first mass tear gassing against civilians and later to rubber bullets. Derry residents faced water cannons for the first time on October 5, 1968. At the time, the BBC reported that “police tried to disperse the protesters by using their batons indiscriminately and spraying water from hoses on armoured trucks.”

While thus far British use of water cannons has been restricted to Northern Ireland, the 2011 riots are not the first time England has considered acquiring them. During the 1981 riots in Liverpool’s Toxteth, Conservative MP Teddy Taylor called for the use of water cannons as the “quickest and easiest way” to clear the streets – an appeal supported at the time by Margaret Thatcher. Less than ten years ago, following the 2005 G8 summits protests in Gleneagles, police authorities from England and Wales travelled to a conference in Belfast to check out a demonstration of the effectiveness of water cannons.

Again in 2009, following the G20 protests in London, water cannons were scouted as a public order policing solution. An investigation by the Independent on Sunday found that “Scotland Yard first began training officers to use the weapons in May 2008, a year before [the] G20. The same month senior Met officers considered a plan to buy six water cannons for ‘quelling or moderating violent disorder’ at a cost of £5m.”

The justification for using water cannons both at home and abroad relies primarily on studies done on animals in laboratory conditions. These studies are primarily commissioned by the British Home Office and carried out at Porton Down, a Ministry of Defence facility. Far from an ‘independent’ scientific body, Porton Down is overseen by the Home Office. The research and development park gained notoriety following a major legal battle that ended in a £3 million compensation pay out to 360 veterans for testing weapons on them without proper consent.

Other data relied on to produce ‘safety reports’ comes from hospital records. These Home Office briefing documents draw attention to the relatively little hospitalised care that has happened in Northern Ireland. However, in most cases involving the deployment of riot control weapons, accurate figures on injuries are difficult to obtain from medical records because many people do not go in for hospital treatment. Fear of arrest, abuse, or torture deters injured protesters from seeking medical care. This contributes to the skewed official statistics on real-life impacts, leading to downplayed harms.

Contrary to these findings of clinical ‘safety’, testimony reports from field workers, physicians and those who face water cannons around the world paint a very different picture of what real-life deployments look like outside the laboratory and military trials following perfect protocol. While the controlled laboratory setting allows for calm deployments and clear targets, this bears little resemblance to what we see unfold on the streets.

The deployment of water cannons and other riot control devices has seen increasing ‘weaponisation’ since the global uprisings of 1968. In industry speak ‘weaponisation’ refers to when riot control technologies are used outside of protocol, increasing the amount of harm they cause. Less lethal technologies are designed to maximise pain but limit lasting injury. What make them legally able to claim a ‘less lethal’ status are the strict guidelines in place that dictate their use. When these technologies are fired with greater force, from close range, in the wrong direction, or at an improper target, they quickly move from ‘less lethal’ to highly lethal. From blinding people to crushing people to death, the history of water cannons is laced with humanitarian disasters.

The real-world impacts of water cannons

Water cannons have been repeatedly deployed in countries condemned by the international community for repression and torture. We also know that many of the water cannons used in acts of repression and torture where exported from England.

A memorandum from humanitarian organisation TAPOL sent to the Select Committee on Trade and Industry in 1998 details water cannon abuses in Indonesia: “In April 1996, British-made armoured vehicles were used in a violent assault on a university campus, which resulted in many injuries and three student deaths.” The Independent reported, “Paramilitary police drove British-made armoured water cannon onto the campus and sprayed the students with an ammonia solution” causing dozens to suffer severe skin burns. The water cannons used in these instances were exported by the British with full knowledge of the human rights abuses being carried out in Indonesia at the time.

In recent years water cannons have continued to play a role in serious injuries and deaths around the world. In Zimbabwe three people died after the deployment of water cannons caused panic in a peacefully demonstrating crowd of 10,000. During the Gezi protests in Turkey chemical-laced water loaded into cannons caused severe burns and eye injuries. Just last month the Ukrainian government lifted a ban on using water cannons in sub-zero temperatures. This has resulted in hundreds of injuries and at least one reported death from pneumonia.

Water cannons are also upgraded to become tools for surveillance. A dye technology trailed in Belfast in the 1970s, marked out protesters for arrest, while also causing psychological harm through public shaming and damage to protesters’ clothes. This practice of dying water has appeared around the world, from Uganda to Hungary. In Afghanistan an ‘invisible’ dye that only shows up under UV lights is targeted at suspected insurgents, allowing for identification outside the conflict zone. Adding further upgrades, UK company SmartWater has worked with the police, developing a forensically coded water to “dampen crime.”  Currently used on property, this water technology can be adapted to suit water cannons, marking rioters, protesters, and potential bystanders.

While the Home Office currently claims they would roll out only the ‘basic’ water cannon technology, with increased surveillance – and increased profits – to be gained, this promise may prove to be a little white lie. Indeed, pressure for procurement and use of the ‘highest grade’ water cannons is already being applied – with Conservative MP Richard Tracey arguing for the use of SmartWater in water cannons. It is, after all, these little white lies that lace the history of scientific justifications for less lethal force and riot control.

In response to this increasing weaponisation, the World Medical Association has called for more research into the real-world impacts of water cannons and similar less lethal weapons. Even NATO admits we do not know enough about the real human impacts. In their 2006 report on less lethal technologies, they found that much existing data “is unavailable due to proprietary or national security interests” and where data is available, much is of “very little relevant quality” to understanding human impact. This begs the question, if NATO doesn’t know the reality of these weapons, how are we meant to?  And moreover, if NATO can admit it doesn’t know, why can’t our government?

Militarising policing, increasing profit

It only takes a look at the market interests behind the sale of water cannons and related riot control technologies, to understand businessman Boris’ interest in supporting their sale. Riot Control is big business and London is an international industry hub. Each year London hosts the Counter Terror Expo, attracting 9,500 attendees, including government buyers from countries currently embroiled in human rights violations for their use of riot control technologies, including Bahrain and Turkey. Down the road in Farnborough, the Home Office’s annual Security and Policing event is preparing to serve drinks and canapés to law enforcement representatives and equipment manufacturers from around the world at its March reception. Closed to the public, this Home Office event proudly advertises that the expo “enables exhibitors to display products which would be too sensitive to show in a more open environment.”

Rather than a tool of ‘de-escalation’, the use of water cannon perpetuates social violence. Seen as a declaration by the state that dissent must be crushed, the deployment of luminous, militarised water cannon vehicles often results in escalating force from both police and ‘crowds’. It has been seen to increase the use of home-made firebombs and defensive attacks on police, turning protest into asymmetrical urban warfare—and giving weapons buyers and manufacturers the need to produce more and more equipment.

As governments and corporate manufacturers continue to capitalise off social unrest, police departments privately seek to procure ever expanding arsenals of upgraded weaponry. Reporting on the police forces’ pending acquisition of water cannons, West Mercia Chief Constable David Shaw concludes, “There is no intelligence to suggest that there is an increased likelihood of serious disorder within England and Wales. However, it would be fair to assume that the ongoing and potential future austerity measures are likely to lead to continued protest.”

It is in this use of austerity to justify an increased police arsenal that the limitations of the water cannon debate become so clear. The public consultation period offers no room for questioning why riots and uprisings happen in the first place. It offers us no history lessons of humanitarian disasters, nor of struggles against oppressive governments. It provides no access to the classified scientific reports on these weapons. It claims ‘independent review’ without disclosing committee membership or engaging any of the warnings from medical associations around the world. Instead, we are left with only a deadly ultimatum: “Spray of water, or spray of bullets? Take your pick.”

Framed as a matter of cost-saving concerns, they tell us these cannons will come as the cheaper option. But the cost of a water cannon amounts to much more than £30,000 a piece used from Germany, or £1 million with all the new features (plus training, maintenance and operation). Water cannons also cost the weight of these human rights abuses around the world. They cost the likelihood of massive legal settlements and public outrage when protocol is not followed with laboratory precision. They cost the results of ignoring how school closures, youth centre shutdowns, job losses, tax evasions and growing disillusionment with the government and police fuel uprisings. These are the realities that need far more than public consultation periods. No water cannon will cool them down.

As this carved out time period of public consultation comes to an end, all that has accumulated is more chatter and less facts. We have witnessed public consultation without public information; a spectacle of engagement that has left only more unanswered questions. Like a domestic ritual, the Home Office strategy for addressing public order policing appears to have its own cycle: conduct backroom science, downplay human impacts, ignore history, white-wash and repeat.

Piece originally published at Open Democracy |Creative Commons License