© 2024 International Network of Civil Liberties Organizations & Physicians for Human Rights

Crowd-Control Weapons

New Frontiers

The market for crowd-control weapons (CCWs) continues to expand and evolve. Every year, manufacturers make more CCWs and develop new ones, increasing the likelihood of people being injured or killed by them.

It is not possible to adequately assess the risk of CCWs developed in secret until either manufacturers become more transparent in their testing processes or, more likely, CCWs are used on civilians in the streets. However, in this report we highlight novel, emerging technologies being used for crowd control and attempt to describe the potential risks of these newer weapons. Some of these weapons have been available for decades for policing or military purposes but are now increasingly being used for crowd control. Other weapons are still in development.

Electronic control devices

Electronic control devices (ECDs, the most common form of which is the Taser, a projectile electric shock weapon) are weapons that use painful electric currents to immobilize or dissuade individuals. While electrocution from modern weapons is considered low risk, the shocks from these weapons can result in significant injuries such as cardiac dysrhythmias, burns and muscle damage, as well as fatal injuries.

Repeated shocks, extended shock times and weapons with higher electrical charges can result in higher numbers of injuries. The barbs of electrodes fired from projectile electric shock weapons can damage skin. Shock shields can trap individuals and extend the time of injury to them. As ECDs proliferate throughout the world, their risks become amplified along with their diversification.

Directed energy weapons

Directed energy weapons are electromagnetic heating devices that deliver very high frequency, millimetre-wavelength electromagnetic rays that heat skin on contact and cause a painful, burning sensation. Other weapons, known as dazzlers, can direct intense radiation to temporarily disorient individuals.

These have not been used in practice except for a handful of military or combat settings, and there has been no assessment of their safety in crowd-control settings. Existing information identifies concerns about tissue injury, particularly with prolonged exposure or exposure to vulnerable organs such as the eye. There needs to be much more transparency regarding what these weapons are, how they work and what testing has been done before discussions around regulating and using them begin.

Remotely operated vehicles (drones)

Remotely operated vehicles, more commonly known as drones, have seen massive growth in the past decade, both for surveillance and due to their potential to carry and fire CCWs. Both of these uses are particularly problematic in terms of injury and civil liberties.

These weapons may carry additional risk of injury because of the lack of physical presence of an officer, which means there is no in-person judgement of what and how much to use, how, when and on whom. Mistakes around drone strikes are frequent in military operations and, by extension, are concerning for crowd settings.

Although drones firing CCWs have only been used in Israel and the Gaza Strip as of January 2023, a large number of countries have purchased these technologies, leading to concerns about their extended use in the near future.

Case studies