Cruel weapons

November 30, 1999

WHEN Red Cross surgeon Robin Coupland needs to demonstrate the horrific effect of outlawed weapons, he produces a slightly smudged photo of a wounded man on a stretcher. Your eyes widen as you realise what you're seeing. Like a cartoon character chomped by a shark, there's a beach-ball sized semicircle where his shoulder used to be. The man's arm is still attached to his trunk by a perilously thin strip of tissue.

The grotesque injury provides ample evidence that an illegal exploding bullet has been used. Fortunately, the international community has largely succeeded in eliminating their use. Exploding bullets were banned by the St Petersburg Declaration in 1868, and in 1899 the Hague Declaration outlawed expanding dumdum bullets.

But weapons manufacturers have been devising new weapons ever since. Most people have heard of land mines, cluster bombs, and even blinding lasers. But what about the latest devices? Beams of inaudible sound that can liquefy your bowels. Sticky foam that can superglue you to the ground. Capture nets that can give you cuts, chemical burns and electric shocks. And microwaves that disorientate your brain.

Under Article 35 of the Geneva Protocols, 150 countries have already agreed to ban "weapons, projectiles and material and methods of warfare of a nature to cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering". But since this protocol was first accepted in 1977, there has been little attempt to work out what it means in practice. As weapons are mostly designed to kill or injure, what sets apart those which cause "superfluous" or "unnecessary" harm? And is it right that weapons manufacturers and the military should decide the answer?

Many doctors think not. The International Committee of the Red Cross, the organisation responsible for tending the victims of war, believes many new weapons-including some so-called non-lethal weapons-have the potential to cause unnecessary injury and death. For example, if sticking foam is used in a conflict situation, people could suffocate or be left for dead. For the first time, in a bid to avoid the moral and legal quagmire in which such issues get bogged down, the Red Cross is applying some science to identify and outlaw humankind's more inhumane weapons.

As part of the Superfluous Injury or Unnecessary Suffering (SIrUS) Project, launched in 1997, the Red Cross has analysed the wounds received by 26 636 people in wars in Afghanistan, Cambodia, Rwanda and Sudan between 1991 and 1997. It found that conventional weapons such as bullets, shells, bombs, grenades and mortars have broadly similar effects. Their use is likely to result in the deaths of between 18 and 22 per cent of soldiers injured on the battlefield, and between 2á5 and 4á5 per cent of those who make it into hospital. Injuries are spread evenly about the body. Fewer than 10 per cent of the wounds are cavities more than 10 centimetres wide.

Rules of engagement

This, the Red Cross reasons, can form the basis for a definition of superfluous injury and unnecessary suffering. In other words, these death rates are the norm, and should not be exceeded by new weapons. It suggests weapons should be banned if they: kill more than a quarter of the soldiers injured on the battlefield or more than 5 per cent in hospital; cause specific physical or psychological disabilities or diseases; leave cavities in the body wider than 10 centimetres; or produce injuries that cannot be treated.

"The effects on human beings of weapons commonly used by armies now are bad enough," says Coupland, who is masterminding SIrUS. "If possible, anything worse should be prevented."

If, despite fierce opposition from the US, the Red Cross initiative takes off, it could force countries to abandon some of their nastier weapons. Even mighty NATO, which finalised its policy on non-lethal weapons at a meeting of defence ministers in Brussels this week, may end up having to take notice.

Coupland points out that there are plenty of precedents for the international community prohibiting weapons that it finds abhorrent. Besides exploding bullets and dumdum bullets, chemical and biological weapons were prohibited in 1925 under a Geneva Protocol.

More recently, permanently blinding lasers were banned in 1995 and anti-personnel mines in 1997 (the US has yet to sign up). All these weapons breach the SIrUS criteria. According to Coupland, incendiary weapons such as napalm also fail the test. Cluster bombs are coming under scrutiny, but there's not enough evidence yet to say whether they should be banned.

Coupland had hoped that SIrUS would win support from the 190 governments gathered in Geneva at the 27th International Conference of the Red Cross at the start of November. In the event, delegates were distinctly cool about the idea. All they agreed to do was insert a clause in the final plan of action that said states may "analyse the extent" to which SIrUS might help them determine which weapons breached international law.

Only Australia has said that it will take SIrUS criteria into account when reviewing its weapons policy. Other countries, such as Britain, are doing their best to ignore the initiative. "It sits there blinking at them and they don't know what to do about it," Coupland says. But he's pleased that SIrUS has at least made it on to the agenda.

The US is the most outspoken critic of SIrUS. "It is a horrendous waste of time," says Hays Parks, a senior US Army lawyer in Alexandria, Virginia. "Its data and its criteria are scientifically, medically and militarily flawed."

Parks was one of a score of experts from 13 countries invited to Geneva by the Red Cross in May to review SIrUS. The experts' verdict, he claims, was "devastating". They criticised the database of 26 636 victims as unrepresentative of modern high-tech conflicts because their wounds had been caused mostly by small arms fire in developing countries. Coupland retorts that SIrUS data come from real conflicts.

Parks also argues that the four criteria proposed by SIrUS are subjective and unworkable. For example, he says a good sniper's rifle, one of the best weapons for distinguishing between combatants and non-combatants, would be banned on the grounds that it kills more than a quarter of those it is fired at. And artillery shells could be outlawed for causing wounds wider than 10 centimetres.

However, another panel member, the British Medical Association's head of science and ethics Vivienne Nathanson, has a different recollection. "There was some criticism, but it was constructive," she says. She believes the data, though not perfect, are robust enough for the job. The difference in opinions is hardly surprising, she says. "Some people don't want outsiders telling the military what to do."

Alan Sharman, director-general of the Defence Manufacturers' Association, which represents 400 British companies, has not heard of SIrUS. However, he questions how realistic it is to ban weapons that kill more than a quarter of the soldiers injured on the battlefield. As a former army officer, he could imagine circumstances where he would rather be dead than wounded.

Even so, SIrUS has gained some surprising friends. Graham Pearson, the former director of the British Chemical and Biological Defence Establishment at Porton Down in Salisbury, believes that it is scientifically strong. "I support it," he says. "If we can get rid of some of these nasty weapons, we would have a safer and better world."

Coupland, too, is undeterred by all the flak. He points out that 14 national medical associations and 15 professional groups, including the World Medical Association, have endorsed SIrUS. "It is probably about the most peer reviewed data you will come across," he suggests.

Having worked as a battlefield surgeon in nine different war zones since 1987, and witnessed the suffering that goes on, Coupland is determined to win public support for SIrUS. "It is going to be a long and painful process, but we knew that," he says. "We've been there on blinding lasers and anti-personnel mines, and we are not disconcerted."
Author: Rob Edwards

New Scientist issue 4th December 1999


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