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In June, in the midst of escalating actions against protesters across the globe, Amnesty International launched 'Tear Gas: An Investigation.' This highly researched, interactive platform is essentially a primer on tear gas for anyone concerned with its deployment; it explains what tear gas is when it is used and abused, and how to take action to prevent its misuse.

Cambridge's Digital Verification Corps (DVC), a team of trained students who support Amnesty's research through the discovery and verification of digital human rights evidence, contributed in collaboration with the other five DVCs at universities across the globe to document tear gas misuse for the platform's incident map.

Using open-source investigation methods, the DVCs and Amnesty verified close to 500 videos posted on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter of over 100 discrete events in 22 countries where tear gas has been misused, confirming the location, date, and validity of events. Cambridge's DVC particularly focused on events in Bolivia, Chile, Hong Kong, Iran, and the US. Alongside interviews with protesters themselves, the analysis exposes a disturbing global trend of widespread, unlawful tear gas use.

"As we witness unrest across the globe, we see the gas employed in ways that it was never intended, often in large quantities against peaceful protesters or by firing projectiles directly at people, causing injury and even death."

-        Oliver Feeley-Sprague, Programme Director for Military, Security and Police at Amnesty

Tear gas has been fired through the windshield of a passenger car, inside a school bus, at a funeral procession, inside hospitals, residential buildings, metros, shopping malls, and, strangely, in virtually empty streets. Police have fired canisters directly at individuals, a practice that has led to fatalities; and from trucks, jeeps and drones whizzing by at high speeds. On the receiving end have been climate protesters, high school students, medical staff, journalists, migrants and human rights defenders, such as the Bring Back Our Girls movement in Nigeria. A doctor in Sudan described how tear gas was fired in the emergency room of the hospital, injuring eleven. Protesters in Abuja told Amnesty International that types of tear gas used on peaceful protests led to many of them collapsing and having to be taken to hospital; they noticed that exposure to a chemical agent used in water cannons was burning holes in their banners and clothing. While in Caracas, several videos show police firing canisters directly at people, causing severe injury and, in at least one documented case, death.

So abusive has the situation become that Nils Melzer, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, has equated the use of tear gas in certain situations as amounting to torture or other ill-treatment.

The DVC's extensive documentation of tear gas abuses involves two stages: discovery and verification. First, researchers search social media sites manually and with digital tools to find eyewitness reports of human rights abuses. Once the content is collected, the DVC turns to verification, which primarily involves geolocating the incident and confirming the time and date of the incident as closely as possible. This process takes hours of detective work on Google Earth Pro and other digital databases. 

"…when a platform like this goes up for Amnesty, it's pretty airtight – people can't turn around and cry, 'Fake news!' There have been so many previous cases where governments and others delegitimise people's claims, and the verification work seems to help mitigate this ."

-        Bekah Lyndon, Cambridge DVC co-lead


To stay up to date with the latest projects from the DVC, follow CGHR on Twitter.