Activists in Bahrain say the misuse of teargas by security forces against protesters amounts to chemical warfare. They believe a German-South African defense company is among the suppliers.
Used properly, tear gas is non-lethal. Used improperly it can cause death, blindness and miscarriage. Used improperly in great quantities on a daily basis, it is considered tantamount to chemical warfare. That, say Bahrainis, has become the face of their existence.
A layman could easily be forgiven for thinking teargas canisters a uniform product, but the average Bahraini is more expert than lay. Citizens on the tiny Gulf Island have become so familiar with the canisters that have rained on them since their uprising in early 2011 that they can easily differentiate between the various models in circulation.
Many are boldly emblazoned with their country and even company of origin. Not so, however, the widely used 40mm silvery gold canisters with a thick red band and lettering. Activists at the human rights organization Bahrain Watch say the unnamed cartridges bear an uncanny resemblence to those manufactured by the German-South African defense company Rheinmetall Denel Munition Pty (RMD).
Bahrain Watch has a track record of tracing scantly unmarked spent canisters back to their place of manufacture. Last year the group’s research into the provenance of an unlabelled brand led them to South Korea’s Dae Kwang chemical corporation. "The company had the products on its website," Reda al-Fardan of Bahrain Watch told DW. "The features were the same as those on the ones being fired and the dimensions gave us further confirmation."
Having established that Dae Kwang was poised to export up to three million canisters to Bahrain in early 2014, the rights group launched a campaign to stop it. And they achieved their goal. In the first week of January, South Korea’s Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) announced it would halt the planned shipment on grounds of "political instability" in the recipient country.
Amnesty International’s Head of Arms Control, Brian Wood, heralded the change of tack, as "a clear message that the Bahraini authorities’ ongoing repression of peaceful protests is unacceptable and will not be rewarded with future weapons transfers." But there is always another supplier eager to do business.
Scouring defense manufacturers’ brochures and stands at arms fairs for products that match used cartridges is a painstaking process, but in a sector characterized by shady dealings, Al-Fardan says it is often the best starting point. Bahrain Watch has seen photographs of RMD’s tear gas canisters in its promotional material, and says their size and markings appear to be the same as the models that litter the streets of the country.
DW has seen the images and can confirm the visual similarities, but for copyright reasons cannot publish the pictures. Despite repeated requests, Rheinmetall Denel did not make a picture of its tear gas canisters available. It did, however, offer a statement saying its subsidiary Rheinmetall Denel Munition (Pty) Ltd had to date "neither offered nor supplied tear gas cartridges to the government of Bahrain."
A follow-up request for information about any exports to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) - both of which provided military power to help crush the uprising three years ago - went unanswered.
The South African component
The Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy (BMWi) in Berlin, which is responsible for arms export licenses, was more forthcoming. In a statement to DW it said it had not granted permission for exports of the chemical irritant to either country in 2011. And although Saudi Arabia was Germany’s most important arms export destination for 2012, the Berlin ministry said tear gas did not feature on its shopping list worth 1,237 million euros. The UAE did receive 2,000 German canisters of the chemical agent in 2012. But Manama deals in the millions rather than the thousands.
As for exports of the substance directly to Bahrain, the BMWi told DW "there have been no applications from German companies to export tear gas to Bahrain in recent years."
But 49 percent of the company is South African, and its production plants are located there. Under German export regulations, RMD could manufacture tear gas in South Africa and ship it to Bahrain without a license from Berlin.
In South Africa the National Conventional Arms Control Committee oversees exports, but it has come under scrutiny from human rights observers in the past for its choice of recipient countries. When asked to offer a statement on how tear gas canisters believed to have been manufactured by their company came to land on the streets of Bahrain, RMD remained silent.
Jan van Aken of Germany’s Foreign Affairs Committee on Disarmament, Arms Control and Non-Proliferation offers two possible explanations for the emergence of what is allegedly RMD tear gas in Bahrain. "It could be an earlier shipment," he said. "Or Rheinmetall Denel could also have sold it to another South African company that shipped it." David Maynier, South Africa’s Shadow Minister of Defence, indicated to Deutsche Welle, that he would put the latter point to his government.
Lethal non-lethal weapons
Meanwhile tear gas is making life treacherous for the people of Bahrain. The international guidelines for its use say it should be fired in open spaces at a 45-degree angle, but YouTube and other social media platforms are awash with videos that show it being used irresponsibly. There are countless reports of police launching it into homes and into mosques and even hairdressing salons.
Witnesses and victims say there is no escape. In a statement issued earlier this year, the Bahraini Interior Ministry said it always uses the substance "entirely in compliance with international law." Vincent Iacopino from the New York-based Physicians for Human Rights begs to differ. His organization put together a detailed report on the issue.
"First and foremost it is being used against peaceful demonstrators to quash opposition or rights of freedom of assembly," Iacopino said. "And it is also being aimed directly at protesters, at close range."
The Bahrain Center for Human Rights has recorded 14 deaths following direct hits from tear gas canisters. It has also logged thousands of injuries, and further fatalities as a result of respiratory complications. Doctors say miscarriage rates have risen, and they are worried about the unknown long-term effects of over-exposure to the irritant.
"It is misuse on a huge scale, it is being used to punish and kill," Al-Fardan said. "It has to stop." He is not planning to give up the fight until all suppliers have been named and shamed. France, Spain, the US and now South Korea have already announced a halt to their export programs, now it is time to pressure the manufacturers of the 40mm canisters with the unmistakable thick red band.