US technology against Chinese dissidents?
“The characterization as a ‘warning device’ is right most of the time; however, when it is being used to drive people back by acoustic pain then one should call it a weapon – it’s a gray area,” says Dr. Juergen Altmann, a physicist at Technische Universität in Dortmund, Germany, who has been studying acoustic weapons system for over ten years.
The distinction matters. Ever since the 1989 massacre of pro-democracy activists in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, the US has banned its manufacturers from exporting certain military, crime control or detection equipment to China. The EU has similar restrictions.
But Robert Putnam, in charge of media and investor relations with the LRAD’s manufacturers, the American Technology Corporation of San Diego, California, says it is “a directed sounds communications system, not a weapon.” He says the LRAD was developed after the attack on the USS Cole in the Persian Gulf in order to determine the intent of an intruder at a distance.
The LRAD was on display last month at the Asia Pacific China Police Expo 2008 in Beijing. ATC was there with their Asian distributors, the Asia-Pacific Xuanxhao Group. Neither would comment on how many LRADs, if any, have been sold or distributed across China.
But for the first time since the early 1990s, the US Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security is now undertaking a review of security devices that American companies may export to China. The list of restricted security devices – on the Commerce Control List – may be expanded, and what ATC describes as a device “to influence behaviour and determine intent” might be construed as something much more dangerous and pernicious.
ATC’s Robert Putnam argues that, “since LRAD is a communications system, we are not subject to export control lists.” But the Commerce Department may see things differently.
Currently the LRAD is deployed around the world, from military vehicles in Iraq (used by the Marines in Fallujah), to a number of large US city police departments. It was used in 2005 to fight off pirates from a cruise ship off the Somali coast, and was used to disperse pro-democracy demonstrators in Tbilisi last November, where Human Rights Watch said it precipitated panic amongst the crowd.
The Commerce Department review is motivated, in part, by concerns that US-manufactured security equipment – from CCTV to vehicles – will be abused by the Chinese police and security forces in repressing internal dissent and peaceful protests
The US Commerce Department review comes in light of recent technological advances across sectors. “It’s a test of the workings of US arms control regulations in terms of second generation arms technology control,” says a European non-lethal arms control expert who works in China, and did not want to be identified for fear of reprisals by the Chinese authorities.
Whether the regulations are tightened or not, the review will set a precedent for future technologies that have both police and military purposes, ranging from futuristic immobilizing sticky foam and energy rays and malodourants. More prosaic technologies include sophisticated surveillance cameras and biometric sensors that could be used in state repression.
Even if the LRAD makes it past the review, they could face trouble from groups such as the World Organization for Human Rights USA, a Washington-based advocacy group. Theresa Harris, the organization’s executive director, says their organization has already weighed in and requested the commerce department to implement broad changes.
“We believe that the Commerce Department is failing to prevent grave human rights abuses. The US Government is obligated under international law and federal statues to prevent US companies from exporting the tools of torture to police and security agencies that have documented records of human rights violations.”
Whether the LRAD or any other high-tech devices are added to the list of items prohibited from being sold to China will not make the most crucial difference, says Harris. The important thing is getting enforcement mechanisms in place. To that end, there are a number of laws that foreigners can use to prosecute US companies in US courts, if a US product is instrumental in perpetuating violations of human rights abroad.
Of course, the LRAD itself poses an interesting dilemma, since the use of any non-lethal technology might be preferred to, say, bullets and bombs.