“Non-lethal” weapons: precipitating a new arms race

BMJ 1997; 315 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.315.7100.72 (Published 12 July 1997) Cite this as: BMJ 1997;315:72

Medicine must guard against its knowledge being used for weapon development

  1. Robin M Coupland, Surgeona
  1. a Division of Health Operations, International Committee of the Red Cross, CH-1202 Geneva, Switzerland

    Armies are purported to have already deployed dazzling devices, calmatives, entangling agents, adhesives (“stickums”), material that makes any surface too slippery to walk on (“slickums”), devices generating infrasound or electromagnetic waves, and devices for riot control.1 2 Other possible devices are sprays to weaken vehicle or plane parts, electromagnetic beams to confuse computers, and bacteria to degrade fuel. The term applied to this new generation of military technology is “non-lethal” weapons; it implies that military operations can avoid death and serious injury. Should not the medical profession rejoice?

    Let us first examine the terminology. A “weapon” is something that is designed to cause bodily harm; technologies designed specifically to damage inanimate objects should not be considered in the same context.1 “Non-lethal” implies zero fatalities, but such an objective is acknowledged to be unrealistic, giving rise to alternative phrases such as “less than lethal” or “sub-lethal.”1 These terms carry the further implication that conventional antipersonnel …

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