Dark Days Ahead: Thinking about Turkey’s Tear Gas Purchase

A television capture of raid in June

A television capture of raid in June

I have been going over a number in my head these past few days.  1.9 million.  That, according to Amnesty International, is the number of tear gas canisters and gas grenades that Turkey has ordered from a South Korean manufacturer for 2015.

Given the sorry record of Turkish security forces misusing such weapons, Amnesty has issued an urgent plea to the South Koreans, asking them to suspend the sale.  After all, Turkish police routinely – and illegally – use tear gas canisters as projectiles, often resulting in serious injury and sometimes, as in the case of Berkin Elvan, fatally.  During the Gezi protests of 2013, hundreds and perhaps thousands were injured in this way. In its landmark report on the Gezi crackdown, Amnesty notes:

Police officers were repeatedly seen firing tear gas canisters horizontally at suspected demonstrators as a weapon. A significant proportion of persons injured at the scene of demonstrations received injuries through being struck by gas canisters, many of them fired at close range. The Human Rights Foundation of Turkey reported to Amnesty International that of the applications for rehabilitation made to their foundation, 60% were due to injuries caused by gas canisters…

Berkin Elvan

Berkin Elvan

But that was not the limit of abuses with tear gas:

Amnesty International witnessed tear gas being used repeatedly against peaceful protestors at demonstrations in a manner that was manifestly inappropriate, abusive and in violation of their rights. Widespread reports and photographic and video evidence also point to the frequent use of tear gas against protestors fleeing police and apparently randomly against potential demonstrators and bystanders alike at the scene or close to and at persons in confined spaces including residential buildings and commercial premises where protestors had sought refuge and health facilities where injured persons were receiving treatment.     

The Numbers

So back to the numbers.  As a historian, I understand the difficulty of conceptualizing large numbers and I am used to playing with numbers to help students understand statistics. So, looking at the scale of Turkey’s purchase, I wanted to help myself better understand it.  What does 1.9 million tear gas canisters and gas grenades mean?

For starters, it represents more than ten times the standard amount ordered by Turkey before 2013According to Amnesty, annual procurement used to be 150,000 canisters per year, but increased significantly after Gezi.

It also represents just under 15 times the amount of tear gas used by Turkey during the first twenty days of the Gezi protests (130,000 canisters, according to Turkish authorities).  To think about this another way (and feel free to check my math here, I’m merely a historian after all), 1.9 million tear gas canisters and gas grenades would allow Turkey to employ gas in the excessive manner it did during the height of the Gezi crackdown for a whopping, 292 days, or nearly 10 months.  The mind boggles.

Used by permission.   © Tolga Sezgin / Nar Photos

Used by permission. © Tolga Sezgin / Nar Photos

Given these startling numbers, as well as Turkey’s clear record of abuse, it is obvious why Amnesty has called on South Korea and other suppliers to suspend these sales.  It is quite literally a matter of life and death.

More troubling signs

In thinking about these numbers, one journalist responded over twitter, “What is he [Erdogan] planning????”  I can’t pretend to know.  There is good reason to worry though.

As government power is being centralized, loci of opposition, from newspapers to soccer fan clubs are being systematically targeted.  Opposition voices are vilified when they aren’t criminalized.  President Erdoğan, always pugnacious, sounds increasing belligerent.  Moreover, as Nate Schenkkan wrote in an smart piece for Freedom House:

External actors have lost all influence in Turkey. In response to Sunday’s arrests, the European Union quickly issued an unusually harsh statement reminding Turkey that respect for rule of law and fundamental rights are required for accession to the bloc… On Monday Erdoğan responded to the statement by saying he was not worried about whether Turkey would be accepted into Europe, and telling the EU to “keep your advice to yourself.”

All signs point in a troubling direction. Belligerent language of “parasites” and internal enemies, arrests and campaigns of vilification, expanded powers for security forces, and increased political control and centralization for the government… and 1.9 million tear gas canisters and gas grenades.  2014 was a very tough year for Turkish human rights.  But 2015, looks like it may be even worse.

Howard Eissenstat
St. Lawrence University


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