Non-Lethal Weapons and Peace

(Article published in the World Citizens of Australia Bulletin – Summer 2011-12)

A major aim of the World Citizens Association is to prevent war. As one nation of the world, we will have no need to go to war against each other. But if we cannot stop war, then sooner or later, some person or organisation – a terrorist, a rogue nation or even a legitimate state – is going to explode a nuclear bomb. Just one of those horrific devices would cause huge immediate destruction, not to mention long-term harm from radioactivity. A full-scale nuclear war could result in immense damage and even the complete extinction of the human race.

World peace is therefore very important indeed. A world parliament will provide a lasting solution but in the meantime there are other initiatives we can take to help achieve peace on this planet. The peace movement is already making an enormous contribution, lobbying for arms control, human rights, reconciliation and many other initiatives. The approach that I am supporting is a technological one. It is to transform military technology from being generally designed to kill people (in other words ‘lethal’) to being still effective, but non-lethal. The devices employed for this purpose are called ‘Non-Lethal Weapons’ (NLWs). It’s been remarked to me more than once that a ‘non-lethal weapon’ is a contradiction in terms. True in a way – and there has been a good deal of debate about some other issues. For example, so-called NLWs, if used incorrectly, can be lethal. Despite this, the term ‘non-lethal weapon’ is still the most widely recognised and is likely to persist for the moment.

What exactly is a non-lethal weapon? It’s a device that can protect people from armed agressors and/or can repel or constrain them, but does not cause death or major injury. A good example of a NLW is the stun gun or Taser, used by police. Other examples used in the civilian arena are tear-gas and rubber bullets. Military NLWs are at an early stage of development, but include devices that employ sound, microwaves and flashing lights. The military have made particular advances with what you might call defensive technologies, such as ‘entanglers’ which halt vehicles.

What is the advantage of using NLWs rather than lethal weapons? First of all, if we do not kill other people we avoid immense grief and suffering. That alone is probably enough reason. More than that, by avoiding such damage we greatly increase the chances of long-term peace. A non-lethal war might result in deprivation and imprisonment, but this can be much more readily forgiven than death and major injury. There is also a further benefit. Operating non-lethally reduces the climate of violence. This is likely to be true in the civilian context as well. If our police officers do not carry lethal weapons (guns) they set the tone for a less confrontational society. By promoting a culture of non-violence we are more likely to move towards peace on the international front. Most importantly, if our military can transform their operations to non-lethal technology, the most lethal technology of all – nuclear weaponry – becomes obsolete.

So what is the outlook for NLWs? A non-lethal approach to war has been around in some guises for a long time (you can think of defensive technologies such as armour and castle walls – or of taking prisoners rather than killing). The modern NLW movement dates from about the 1970s when such ideas as ‘a war without blood’ were proposed. As often happens, the movement gained substantial momentum in the USA and this was the time that the US Marine Corps set up its non-lethal weapons unit. As also often happens with new approaches, after the initial burst of enthusiasm for NLWs, some doubts set in.

NLWs are not without their problems. So far, they have been limited in their effectiveness. Sometimes they turn out to belie their name and cause death and severe injury. NLWs such as stun guns have been used inappropriately and even for torture. The fentanyl based gas employed as a hopefully non-lethal agent to neutralise Chechen terrorists at the Dubrovka Theatre in Moscow in 2002 killed 129 hostages (although over 700 survived). NLW centres in universities (such as the NLW unit at Bradford University’s Peace and Conflict Centre) have in recent years focused on the problems of NLWs rather than their advantages.

In the last few years, however, I believe that the pendulum has begun to swing back. The military debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown the huge damage and cost of conventional warfare coupled with its overall ineffectiveness in resolving conflicts. The US military appears to be increasing its investment in its Non-Lethal Weapons Program. A European NLW Symposium has been convened every two years since 2001. The 6th Symposium which took place in Germany last year (2011) was well attended by some 120 NLW practitioners from around the world, with dozens of presentations. My own contribution at present is to coordinate the Non-Lethal Weapons for Peace Campaign. You can find more information about this at www.nonlethalweaponscampaign.com .

Although these are still early days, I’m very optimistic that a technological approach to peace could be both attractive and effective. Some of the most major advances in, for example, agriculture and health have been achieved through new technologies. (We humans love our gadgets!)

Long lasting world peace will be accomplished when we become world citizens. Non-lethal weapons can help us along the same path.

WCA and NLW can work together.

Andrew Greig is coordinator of the Non-Lethal Weapons for Peace Campaign and the author of  “Taming War – Culture and Technology for Peace”.