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Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, Press release, Tuesday 8 April 2003

The Human Rights Commission today published a report on human rights and the use of baton rounds in Northern Ireland. The report, written by the Omega Foundation for the Commission, raises serious concerns about the safety of the L21A1 baton round currently used by the police and army in Northern Ireland. It concludes that this baton round travels faster and hits harder than the one it replaced and that its lack of accuracy in use makes it potentially more lethal.

Brice Dickson, Chief Commissioner of the Human Rights Commission, commented:

"The Commission is disturbed by Omega's findings. We are particularly concerned about the potential danger to children from injury by the baton round and indeed some children have already been hurt by it. The authorities should note that the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child has called for the baton round to be withdrawn from use in riot control."

The report also details shortcomings in the system of accountability, particularly in relation to the use of baton rounds by the army. It found that there is no effective independent investigation when rounds are fired by soldiers. It concludes that the Government's search for a safe alternative to baton rounds has not been carried out with sufficient urgency or independence.

Professor Dickson added:

"While the news last week that the Government hopes to have an alternative to baton rounds before the end of the year is a welcome development, the Human Rights Commission calls on Government to urgently step up its search for safe alternatives to the baton round, to make that research more independent, and to set itself a time limit for withdrawing the baton round. The introduction of safe alternatives to baton rounds is in the interests of both police officers and civilians, especially children."


1. The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission was established in 1999 by the Northern Ireland Act 1998. Under section 69(6) of the Act the Commission has a duty to carry out research in order to promote understanding and awareness of the importance of human rights in Northern Ireland.

2. The Omega Foundation is an independent organisation which specialises in research into military, security and police technologies. It has produced a number of reports on this area for, among others, the European Parliament and the European Commission.

3. In its report of September 1999, the Patten Commission recommended that "an immediate and substantial investment be made in a research programme to find an acceptable, effective and less potentially lethal alternative to the PBR" (Recommendation 69)

4. The L21A1 was introduced in June 2001 in Northern Ireland. At the time Government claimed that it was less lethal on the basis that it was more accurate than the existing baton round.

5. The report's executive summary and list of recommendations follows here. A copy of the full report entitled Baton Rounds can be obtained under embargo from the Commission.

6. For further information please contact Prof Brice Dickson on 028 9024 3987 (wk) or 07901 853005 (mbl) or Dr Linda Moore on 028 9024 987 (wk).

Baton Rounds Research report

Executive summary

1. The terms of reference for this report were to review the human rights implications of the introduction and deployment of the L21A1 baton round and to review proposed alternatives to baton rounds.

2. The research was commissioned by the Human Rights Commission in March 2002. Interviews took place in May 2002.

3. The Patten Report recommended that: "an immediate and substantial investment be made in a research programme to find an acceptable, effective and less potentially lethal alternative to the PBR". Patten advocated an open and objective search for alternatives and consulted some of the communities in Northern Ireland most affected. However even whilst the Patten report was being written, the British Army was finalising performance trials on its preferred option - a new baton round - which was designed to deal with technical problems of the old baton round rather than with any concern about human rights. Despite the best efforts of the government led Steering Group set up to look for an alternative, the army's favoured choice of a new baton round has been adopted in the meantime.

4. In carrying out the current study the Omega Foundation used research adapted from commissioned work undertaken for the European Parliament as well as new data on the technical characteristics of possible options.

5. The report concludes that, both in relation to the introduction of the L21A1 baton round and to the search for alternatives, there have been fundamental weaknesses in the process: the data used for selection, the record keeping procedures instituted and the overall level of accountability.

6. The report recommends that the Government should commit to a binding timetable for the withdrawal of the baton round in Northern Ireland.

7. The new baton round travels faster and hits harder than the one it replaced, and we conclude that its lack of accuracy in use makes it potentially more lethal. We found that over 10% of the new baton rounds fired have caused injury compared with a 1.14% injury rate with the previous round. We also found that the new round is 2.5 times more likely to penetrate the skin, than the previous round.

8. Medical reports commissioned from the Defence Scientific Advisory Council (DSAC) to examine the biomedical effects of the new round, suggest that if this projectile hits the skull end on the risk is that it will lodge in the brain with fatal effect. The higher velocity of this round also leads to a greater potential for ricochet. This will lead to innocent bystanders being affected by indiscriminate and disproportionate force. Yet the authorities have refused to release relevant documentation on this risk. This failure to be transparent about the hazards of the weapon make any claims for its safety unconvincing.

9. The DSAC report was crucially predicated on the premise that the new round and weapon system were extremely accurate only if fired strictly in accordance with the guidelines. This condition is often not met. Firstly our research found that one in three rounds missed its target, secondly there is extensive experience in the past, and some recent experience, of rounds being fired apparently in violation of the guidelines.

10. Following its deployment, fears about inappropriate targeting have been realised - children have been hit and injured. Given the threat of injury or to life for children, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child called for the abolition of the use of the baton round as a means of riot control. We concur with this view.

11. Whilst the government chose to introduce the new baton round in 2001, it also began a process of assessing and recommending other alternative weapons. Such a process was in the spirit of what Patten had in mind. Unfortunately there is inadequate independent input into the work of the Steering Group. Furthermore, in implementing the process the authorities have begun purchasing weapons (for example water cannon) before a full evaluation has been made. This illogical approach critically undermines confidence in the adequacy of the safety evaluation procedures.

12. This report suggests a more informed, objective and legally sustainable methodology of technology assessment. Our most critical point is that any such evaluation should be made by truly independent teams and we suggest that weapons manufacturers be held legally responsible for any inadequacies in their products, when used within the agreed guidelines.

13. Given the history of policing in Northern Ireland, it would be highly inappropriate to introduce electrical stun weapons, which according to the Medical Foundation for the Rehabilitation of the Victims of Torture, are the "universal tool of the torturer".

14. Technology is not neutral and Patten himself recognised that the use of baton rounds was the most controversial policing issue. Recognising that good policing is not merely about technology, we recommend that a process of "Social Impact Assessment" is developed to inform the decision process about potential unforeseen social and political impacts of any proposed weapon system.

15. Patten suggested that baton rounds should be treated as if they were firearms. Even a lay reading of this recommendation would suggest that record keeping should be exemplary. In practice the official reporting of numbers of rounds fired by both the police and the army shows lamentable inconsistencies. Previous reports have shown the police to have failed to adhere to even basic levels of record keeping and problems remain in this area. This undermines public confidence in all the desired accountability processes, including all military and police adherence to official guidelines.

16. The involvement of the Police Ombudsman in investigating baton round discharges has resulted in some welcome degree of accountability - but problems of perception within the communities remain. Firings by the army are outside the Ombudsman's remit. Given that the army is acting as military aid to the civil power when using baton rounds, we recommend that the Ombudsman is given the power and resources to investigate all firings of baton rounds.

17. Accountability for all firings would be greatly enhanced and assisted by forensically marking all baton rounds with a unique identifier which cannot be removed. This is not technically difficult. This should go alongside enhanced audit trails.

18. Whilst calling for a Government commitment to withdraw baton rounds and for urgent, independent research into safe alternatives, we have also made recommendations covering their use until withdrawn. Guidelines should include specific warning to firers about the potentially fatal impact of baton rounds to children. The army should operate to the police guidelines on firing baton rounds, not, as is presently the case, to a weaker standard that does not meet the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms.

19. The new baton round is potentially a more lethal weapon than that which it replaced. Presently there is both a flawed record keeping and a flawed accountability process.


1. We recommend that the NIHRC takes a lead in using international human rights laws and standards to monitor the use of police technologies in Northern Ireland. (Section 1)

2. We recommend that the NIHRC seeks official clarification from the Government that its policy is to withdraw the baton round from Northern Ireland once an acceptable, effective and less potentially lethal alternative is found. (Section 2)

3. We recommend that Government commits to a binding timescale for the completion of the search for an alternative and withdrawal of the baton round in Northern Ireland. (Section 2)

4. We recommend that the NIHRC urgently presses the Government to publish full details of all ricochet testing, including the testing mentioned in the DSAC statement and all subsequent testing. (Section 2.2.2)

5. We recommend that the army operates strictly in accordance with the PSNI/ACPO guidelines when carrying out public order policing duties in Northern Ireland. (Section 2.3)

6. Recognising that children are uniquely vulnerable to the new baton round we recommend that the guidelines to firers include specific warning about the potentially fatal impact to children. (Section 2.3)

7. We recommend that the NIHRC promotes the recommendation of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child that baton rounds be abolished as a means of riot control. (Section 2.4.1)

8. We recommend that the NIHRC presses the Government to publish the statement prepared by the MoD on which the DSAC report (on the use of the baton round after a year) was based, in order to evaluate its relevance and accuracy. (Section 2.4.1)

9. We recommend that the Government sets up a national monitoring system to log injuries caused by baton rounds. This could consist of a website system which logs the incident, time, date, place, numbers fired and by whom. The information must be timely, accurate and public.
(Section 2.4.1)

10. We recommend that the Police (NI) Act 1998 is amended to make it legally binding for the Chief Constable to report all baton round firings to the Police Ombudsman. (Section 2.5)

11. We recommend that the NIHRC is informed by the PSNI of every occasion of baton round discharge. (Section 2.5)

12. We recommend that the NIHRC works with NGOs, community organisations and statutory bodies, including the Police Ombudsman, to ensure that the accountability process is strengthened. (Section 2.5)

13. We recommend that the Police Ombudsman commits to publish regular reports on baton round use including details of all incidents whether still under investigation or not. (Section 2.5)

14. We recommend that the Police Ombudsman is statutorily empowered and given the requisite staff and financial resources to investigate ALL firings of baton rounds. (Section 2.5.1)

15. To aid accountability we recommend that all baton rounds and cartridge cases are forensically marked with a unique identifier which cannot be removed. (Section 2.5.2)

16. We recommend that the Policing Board investigates why the numbers of people arrested in public order incidents are so low and makes appropriate recommendations aimed at redressing this situation and reducing reliance on baton rounds. (Section 2.6)

17. We recommend that the NIHRC investigates how the police liaise with the community before, during and after public order incidents. (Section 2.6)

18. We recommend that no chemical irritant device is deployed by the PSNI until it has undergone a testing regime that is as rigorous (and treats the irritant) as if it were a drug. This would rule out all the current chemical irritant options - especially the current CS spray used in the rest of the UK. (Section 3.2)

19. We recommend that no technology is selected before full independent evaluation of its possible biomedical effects is published. (Section 3.3)

20. We recommend that PSNI is not equipped with any type of electroshock weaponry. (Section 3.4)

21. We recommend that the NIHRC works with other human rights and community organisations to develop knowledge and intervention techniques in order to influence the selection process for policing technologies and weaponry. (Section 3.6)

22. We recommend that the NIHRC works with human rights NGOs to set up a police monitoring system and a team of independent observers to investigate the use of baton rounds at public order incidents, and police tactics more widely. This should include international human rights NGOs and observers. (Section 4)

Lisa Gormley, Administrative Officer
Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission
Temple Court, 39 North Street, Belfast BT1 1NA

PH: 028 90 243987 FAX: 028 90 247844

Full-text of report: Northern Ireland - Baton rounds (Word)

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