Children's Rights - Human Rights Joint Committee Contents

Memorandum submitted by British Irish Rights Watch

  British Irish RIGHTS WATCH (BIRW) is an independent non-governmental organisation that has been monitoring the human rights dimension of the conflict, and the peace process, in Northern Ireland since 1990. Our vision is of a Northern Ireland in which respect for human rights is integral to all its institutions and experienced by all who live there. Our mission is to secure respect for human rights in Northern Ireland and to disseminate the human rights lessons learned from the Northern Ireland conflict in order to promote peace, reconciliation and the prevention of conflict. BIRW's services are available, free of charge, to anyone whose human rights have been violated because of the conflict, regardless of religious, political or community affiliations. BIRW takes no position on the eventual constitutional outcome of the conflict.

British Irish RIGHTS WATCH welcome this opportunity to participate in the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) inquiry into children's rights. We have focussed our comments on the interaction between less lethal force and children in Northern Ireland.

  The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) have within their arsenal AEPs, a type of plastic bullet, and tasers; we believe these weapons could seriously injure or even kill a child. AEPs are most often used in riot situations; BIRW's concern here stems from the rise in recreational rioting in Northern Ireland, where children as young as five may be present.[78] Our concern about tasers is centred upon the extreme danger the effect of a large electric shock could have on a child and the potential for a child to be accidentally hit by a taser.


  In 2005, the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) introduced the attenuating energy projectile (AEP) to replace the plastic bullet, following research commissioned by the Northern Ireland Office to search for a less lethal alternative to the plastic bullet. However, as the Oversight Commissioner for the PSNI commented,[79] the AEP is not an alternative, but simply a different type of plastic bullet. The plastic bullet has had a long and bloody history in Northern Ireland; 17 people have died as a result of the use of rubber and plastic bullets between 1970 and 2005; many others sustained serious injuries. Nine of the 17 victims were aged 18 or under, the youngest being 10 years old.

AEPs were used within three weeks of their introduction; 21 AEPs were fired on 12 July 2005 in Ardoyne, and a further 11 on 4 August 2005 in North Belfast, all of them by the police.[80] A very large number of AEPs were also fired over the period 11 to 13 September 2005, during serious rioting following a ruling by the Parades Commission. Of a total 281 AEPs fired between July and September 2005 by the police, 211, or 75%, hit their mark. BIRW has concerns that the injuries caused by AEPs have not been sufficiently recognised. We draw attention to research published in the Emergency Medicine Journal which examined patient's records from emergency departments in areas in which there had been rioting and AEPs fired.[81] It found that six out of 14 patients presented with injuries to the face, neck or head.

  BIRW has concerns that the probability of these weapons causing serious injury to children and young people caught up in riot situations are high. Officers are trained to use the belt-buckle area as the point of aim at all ranges, thus mitigating against "upper body hits."[82] Unfortunately, this guidance does not mitigate the possibility of striking the abdomen or the genitals nor does it really acknowledge the fact that children are small and thus the risk of collateral damage increased. Further, the guidance provides that, unless there is a serious and immediate risk to life, use at under one metre or aiming the weapon to strike a higher part of the body at any range is prohibited. Yet a range of only one metre is exceptionally close and must increase significantly the potential to cause injury. The guidelines also specifically recognise the fact that AEPs can cause fatalities[83] and that they can ricochet and thus have the potential to harm others apart from the intended target.[84] In 1998, the United Nations' Committee against Torture again found "the continued use of plastic bullet rounds as a means of riot control" to be a matter for concern, and recommended their abolition.[85] In 2002, the United Nations' Committee on the Rights of the Child said; "The Committee is concerned at the continued use of plastic baton rounds as a means of riot control in Northern Ireland as it causes injuries to children and may jeopardize their lives".[86]

  Although AEPs have not been used in a serious riot situation for a number of years, they remain part of the PSNI's arsenal and could be used at any time. BIRW continues to have very serious concerns that the potential for AEPs to cause serious injury and death, particularly to the most vulnerable in society such as children. In July 2008, the UN Committee on Civil and Political Rights highlighted its concern at the use of AEPs and emerging medical evidence that they may cause serious injuries and concluded: "The State party should closely monitor the use of Attenuating Energy Projectiles (AEPs) by police and army forces and consider banning such use if it is established that AEPs can cause serious injuries."[87]


  Tasers (electric stun guns) were introduced into Northern Ireland in January 2008 as part of a three month pilot scheme. There was strong opposition from NGOs and others to this decision, particularly as the Chief Constable had declined to carry out an Equality Impact Assessment prior to their introduction. This disregard for the impact of tasers on vulnerable groups, combined with a lack of adequate respect for both human rights standards and international implementation bodies such as UN Committees, is disturbing.

The lack of data on the long-term effects on the body of exposure to electric shocks powerful enough to incapacitate and the known risk of causing heart attacks give rise to significant concern. Tasers also raise the possibility of violating the prohibition on torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment because, as has been vividly demonstrated in a Panorama documentary,[88] they inflict intolerable pain. Whilst we accept that the use of force will inevitably inflict some pain on its victims, with tasers the infliction of pain is the means of incapacitating people, rather than a side effect of their use. Furthermore, where other means are used it is possible for the operator to use restraint and to try to avoid inflicting unnecessary pain. However, with a taser, a high level of pain is inevitable; the impact of such a substantive voltage on a child is very serious.[89]

  Manufacturers of tasers recommend that they should not be fired on anyone with a dysfunctional heart, pregnant women, or small children.[90] This renders them impractical: police officers can have no way of knowing just by looking at someone that s/he has a dysfunctional heart, or has a pacemaker. Similarly, it is not always possible to tell that a woman is pregnant. There is also scope for accidental injury to such persons, and to children, especially in crowds. In two surveys conducted in America on the use of the M26 Advanced Taser used in a UK trial, over 50% of the persons confronted with the weapon were impaired by alcohol, drugs or mental illness.[91] According to Amnesty International, since 2001, over 150 people have been killed in the USA by tasers. One person, Brian Loan, who had a heart condition, died in the UK on 14 October 2006, three days after being struck by a taser.[92]

  Tasers have been used three times in Northern Ireland since their introduction. The first time involved a hostage situation, where small children were present;[93] the second on a man with a gun; and the third during a disturbance amongst youths.[94] No injuries have, as yet, been reported. The use of tasers is subject to oversight by the Police Ombudsman; but, as yet, no investigations into their use have been concluded.

  Finally, we draw attention to the recent conclusion by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child which issued categorical advice to the United Kingdom, as follows: "The State party should treat Taser guns and AEPs as weapons subject to the applicable rules and restrictions and put an end to the use of all harmful devices on children."[95] In contrast, the PSNI, during their Equality Impact Assessment, indicated their belief that the use of tasers was human rights complaint, despite the UN Committee's statements on this issue. We believe that the potential of AEPs and tasers to seriously harm children and should be withdrawn from use.

February 2009

78   Police appeal for calm over riots, BBC News, 6 September 2005. Back

79   Office of the Oversight Commissioner, Report 11, September 2004, p 52. Back

80   Reply to Freedom of Information request made to the PSNI: F-2005-02695, 19 December 2005 (July and August). Back

81   See Injuries caused by the attenuated energy projectile: the latest less lethal option, by Maguire K, Hughes D, Fitzpatrick S, Dunn F, Rocke L, Baird C, Emergency Medical Journal, November 2006. Back

82   ACPO Attenuating Energy Projectile (AEP) Guidance, amended 16 May 2005, paragraph 1.17. Back

83   Ibid, paragraph 4.1. Back

84   Ibid, paragraph 7.5. Back

85   Conclusions and recommendations of the Committee against Torture: United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, A/54/44, 11 November 1998. Back

86   Concluding observations: United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Committee on the Rights of the Child, CRC/C/15/Add.188, 9 October 2002. Back

87   Concluding observations of the Human Rights Committee, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, 30 July 2008, Back

88   Less Lethal, BBC Panorama documentary transmitted on 9 December 2001. Back

89   According to, the taser M26 Advanced, the type used by the PSNI, has Peak open circuit arcing voltage of 50,000 V; Peak loaded voltage of 5,000 V, average voltage over duration of main phase 3400 V, average over full phase 320 V, average over one second 1.3 V. Back

90   Phase 3 Report, Chapter 3, paragraph 32. Back

91   Phase 4 Report, Chapter 7, Appendix B. Back

92   Death sparks Taser safety concern, BBC Internet News, 18 October 2006. Back

93   First use of taser stun gun in NI, BBC News, 21 August 2008. Back

94   Taser used at disturbance, by Allison Morris, Irish News, 26 January 2009. Back

95   Concluding observations, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, 20 October 2008, Back

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