Objections to Weapons of Less Destruction: Abuses of Nonlethal Weapons Could Result in More Pain and Suffering, Critics Charge

By Lewer, Nick | The Futurist, October 1999 | Go to article overview

Objections to Weapons of Less Destruction: Abuses of Nonlethal Weapons Could Result in More Pain and Suffering, Critics Charge


Lewer, Nick, The Futurist


While some nonlethal weapons are truly benign in that they don't directly maim or kill people, many share the potential to provoke unintended consequences, including prolonged suffering, slow death, or long-term psychological damage. Though the future of nonlethal weapons is uncertain, it is clear that technology has already outpaced the ability of the military community to agree on the ethical consequences of using nonlethal weapons. The following are some key principles to consider.

* Holding military users accountable to civil law. As military forces become more involved in police actions, the public will want to hold them accountable to existing national and international legislation that governs the rights of civilians within the context of civil law. While nonlethal weapons give commanders more politically acceptable responses in violent situations, military leaders stress that their forces are still required to be prepared for conventional war fighting. This means that soldiers are trained and equipped to win battles quickly, with as few casualties as possible. A key question is whether assault combat troops are the right elements to be used in situations where nonlethality is a prime concern or whether nations should create special branches of the armed forces trained to intervene in civil conflicts and humanitarian crises.

* Minimizing unnecessary suffering. Within the international framework of the law of armed conflict, the concept of proportionality asserts that all weapons can cause suffering but also requires that any suffering inflicted in times of war be balanced against military necessity. That is, combatants and noncombatants alike should not be subjected to unnecessary suffering or superfluous injury. This principle of minimizing unnecessary suffering provides a legal and ethical baseline against which the utility of weapons can be judged, and it has provided a stimulus for specific bans on particular weapons, such as dumdum bullets, which split apart on impact, causing huge wounds, and bullets coated with substances that impair the healing of wounds.

But under what circumstances should nonlethal blinding lasers be used, or acoustic devices that can deafen people? Do hallucinogens and other psychotropic substances and chemical incapacitants qualify as toxic chemicals or riot-control agents under the Chemical Weapons Convention?

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