Acoustic Weapons
Memorandum For Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) Delegates

16 December 1999

TO: Delegates to First Annual Conference on CCW Amended Protocol II
FROM: Arms Division of Human Rights Watch
RE: Acoustic Weapons

Acoustic weapons are close to becoming a reality, both on the battlefield and elsewhere. The United States is building two prototype acoustic weapons, is field testing weapons of at least two companies, and may move from research and development to production soon. Other nations reported to be (or to have been) involved in research on acoustic weapons include Russia, China, France, United Kingdom, and Israel. Sweden, Japan, Poland, Yugoslavia, and Denmark are reported to have acoustic weapons effects research programs.

Human Rights Watch has been investigating acoustic weapons for four years as part of a program to evaluate new weapons technologies and their consistency with international humanitarian law. Human Rights Watch is also closely monitoring other directed energy antipersonnel weapons under development, including blinding and dazzling lasers, high-power microwaves and radio frequency weapons.

Human Rights Watch does not oppose development of non-lethal weapons as a class. Acoustic weapons deserve special scrutiny because they represent introduction of a completely new weapons mode based on a novel physical principle. Human Rights Watch is concerned that an insufficient assessment has been made of these weapons, and that some or all may not be consistent with international humanitarian or human rights law.

Despite the name, acoustic weapons are not intended to cause deafness per se. The existing military literature indicates that acoustic weapons--across the entire frequency spectrum, from infrasound to ultrasound--have the ability to cause severe pain, loss of bodily functions, and bodily injury. Depending on the frequencies, intensities (decibel level), and modulations employed, acoustic weapons could cause permanent or temporary physical damage, including damage to internal organs, interference with the workings of the central nervous system, and thermal injuries (burns). Other effects noted by the U.S. military, acoustic contractors, and experts include tissue destruction, hemorrhaging, spasms, acoustic fever, vomiting, choking respiration, "intolerable sensations mainly in the chest," "significant decrement in visual acuity," incontinence, postexposure fatigue, and diffuse psychological effects.

Though not the primary intent, acoustic weapons could cause hearing loss, including total hearing loss, from even short exposures to very high sound levels. Indeed, even though acoustic weapons are often assumed to be by definition non-lethal, they could also be developed and used for lethal warfare.

A host of military and civilian missions are being considered for acoustic weapons, including both battlefield combat and so-called military operations other than war -- urban combat, crowd control, hostage rescue, perimeter defense and physical security. There are indications that acoustic weapons are also being developed for secret "special" missions and covert operations such as counter-terrorism. Acoustic weapons are also being developed with commercialization in mind, for civil law enforcement, border control, and internal prison use.

Human Rights Watch has the following primary concerns with regard to the development of acoustic weapons:

Some or all acoustic weapons may be inconsistent with current standards and obligations of international humanitarian law.

There has been a lack of public policy, military, legal, arms control, or humanitarian discussion regarding development and use of this new mode of weaponry.

* Acoustic weapons programs have been shrouded in excessive secrecy, making meaningful assessment, evaluation and review very difficult.

There has been insufficient research into human effects, even as the weapons are pursued in latter stages of development.

Given the current paucity of information available, it is an open question if some or all acoustic weapons (or acoustic weapons' uses) could be considered inhumane and illegal under international humanitarian law, due to: (1) their potential to cause unnecessary suffering to combatants and non-combatants; (2) their potentially excessively injurious character; (3) their potential for indiscriminateness, that is, inability to be restricted to military targets; and (4) their potentially disproportionate impact on civilians compared to their military utility.

With the banning of blinding laser weapons by the international community in 1995, acoustic weapons are the next new antipersonnel weapon to emerge based upon novel and/or unconventional physical principles. Such a completely new technology demands the closest scrutiny to ensure compliance with domestic and international law, as well as societal acceptability. Yet there has been almost no debate about research into acoustic weapons. Human Rights Watch is concerned that development moves forward without any realistic appreciation of the military dimensions of acoustic weapons, without a full understanding of the human effects, and with a deficient appreciation of social, policy and legal questions.

It may be technically possible to develop acoustic antipersonnel weapons that are consistent with the requirements of international humanitarian law, and are acceptable to the public conscience. However, to make that determination requires greater transparency, more probing research into human effects, and high-level political and legal review.

The international community is at a propitious moment to evaluate thoroughly and critically acoustic weapons before their deployment and widespread proliferation. This must be done now in order to ensure that acoustic weapons do not become a humanitarian disaster in the future.

Any nation involved in acoustic weapons development efforts should suspend such efforts until all appropriate legal and humanitarian reviews have been completed. Bioeffects research should be peer-reviewed in the open scientific literature. Nations should abandon the excessive secrecy surrounding acoustic weapons programs.

It is obvious that there is still not sufficient scientific study to understand either the military effectiveness or human effects of acoustic weapons. Because we do not yet know the military utility or the full human effects of prospective acoustic weapons, their legality remains in question. Governments should, as a matter of priority, determine the criteria for what would constitute an effective and legal acoustic weapon, and what would constitute an illegal acoustic weapon.

Consideration should be given to adding a new protocol dealing with acoustic weapons to the Convention on Conventional Weapons. Such a protocol should prohibit those acoustic weapons and uses of acoustic weapons that violate international humanitarian law, and establish rules, restrictions and criteria for legal weapons and uses. Such a protocol could result in a substantially reduced risk of widespread development, proliferation and use of acoustic weapons that may prove indiscriminate, inhumane or cruel. It could also help to continue to clarify the legitimacy of new weapons technologies. As with the adoption in 1995 of Protocol IV banning blinding laser weapons, a new protocol could address the risks in a timely way, before acoustic weapons become a humanitarian menace