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August 27, 2018
Military Authorized to Use Riot Control Agents in Iraq

Kerry Boyd

President George W. Bush has authorized the use of riot control agents in Iraq under specific circumstances, such as controlling rioting civilians, a Pentagon spokesman confirmed April 23. Although Pentagon officials say that the authorization is legal under U.S. and international law, many experts say using riot control agents in a military operation would violate the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and offend U.S. allies. (See ACT, April 2003.)

In 1975, President Gerald Ford signed Executive Order 11850, renouncing “first use of riot control agents in war except in defensive military modes to save lives.” (See ACT, March 2003.) The order calls on the secretary of defense to ensure the military does not use riot control agents in war “unless such use has Presidential approval, in advance.” The order lists four cases in which U.S. troops may use riot control agents: “in areas under direct and distinct U.S. military control,” such as to control rioting prisoners of war; in a situation where hostile forces use civilians “to mask or screen attacks”; for rescue missions; and “in rear echelon areas outside the zone of immediate combat to protect convoys from civil disturbances, terrorists and paramilitary organizations.” The order remains in effect today.

“There is a very careful process for the decision as to whether or not riot control agents may be used on the battlefield, requiring presidential authorization, which may be delegated to the combatant commander,” W. Hays Parks, special assistant to the Army judge advocate general, said in a Defense Department briefing April 7. “But it’s not something that we do lightly,” he added.

Although U.S. troops in Iraq are now operating under rules of engagement that allow them to use riot control agents under certain circumstances, those rules do not extend to all coalition forces. British Defense Secretary Geoffrey Hoon said in a March 27 press conference that British troops would not use “non-lethal chemical weapons…in any military operation or on any battlefield.”

The Debate

The British decision not to use riot control agents hints at a significant difference in interpretation of the CWC between the United States and many other CWC member states. The treaty, which bans chemical weapons, allows states-parties to possess riot control agents but is vague on the legality of their use. The treaty defines riot control agents as chemicals that “can produce rapidly in humans sensory irritation or disabling physical effects which disappear within a short time following termination of exposure.”

The CWC, which entered into force in 1997, bans the use of riot control agents “as a method of warfare.” However, it allows the use of “toxic chemicals and their precursors” in “law enforcement including domestic riot control purposes,” provided that “the types and quantities are consistent with such purposes.” The gray area between using riot control agents for domestic law enforcement and for warfare remains undefined.

The Pentagon argues that using riot control agents in Iraq under the circumstances allowed by U.S. law would not violate the CWC, which the United States signed in 1993. In a March 9 written response to an article in London’s The Independent that criticized U.S. policy, Victoria Clarke, assistant secretary of defense, said, “[U]se of these agents for defensive purposes to save lives would be consistent with the Chemical Weapons Convention, which prohibits the use of riot control agents as a method of warfare.”

Many arms control experts and, apparently, other CWC member states disagree. They argue that using riot control agents in Iraq would undermine the CWC, which is intended to prevent the use of chemical weapons. Critics say U.S. use of chemical agents would appear hypocritical, since U.S. leaders cited Iraq’s possession of lethal chemical agents as a major justification for invading the country. Some experts also argue that using riot control agents against a military, such as Iraq’s, that possesses gas masks would only harm civilians while not affecting enemy soldiers.

In addition to riot control agents, some arms control analysts had speculated that the United States might use chemical calmatives, which have a much more serious effect on the body and behavior than riot control agents. In her response to The Independent, however, Clarke wrote, “The allegation that the U.S. intends to use calmative agents in a prospective war with Iraq is absolutely false.”