A series of five acid attacks in one night in London has created a moment for the British government to take a more public stance on this growing problem.
A teenager has been charged with 15 offences relating to the incidents, in which moped drivers were targeted. In the course of just over an hour, a series of victims was attacked. At least one person was left with life changing injuries.
Available statistics suggest a sharp rise in attacks with corrosive substances in the UK. Data produced by the Metropolitan Police reveal that there were 455 crimes involving corrosive substances in London alone in 2016. Dozens of incidents have been reported so far this year. However, many more attacks may be going unreported to the police. Data from the UK Health and Social Centre information centre suggest that many acid attacks have previously not been distinguished from other forms of injury when hospitals record admissions.
In response to growing concern, the government has announced a wide ranging review on acid attacks. This review will consider the existing regulatory framework for these crimes, including how they are policed and whether the current sentencing guidelines are appropriate. It will also look at whether retailers need new guidance on selling corrosive substances and include research on the causes of these crimes. The review will also examine what type of support is in place for victims.
A key element so far missing from such discussion is the broader international context of such attacks. And the first question is how to deal with the online market.
It’s apparent that it would be next to impossible to monitor and control the purchasing of such goods across all online forums. But the question of how to regulate online sales – both domestic and international – needs to be be addressed. It’s also worth remembering, that online forums still rely on physical infrastructures. It’s clear that regulation and industry practice around posting potentially dangerous substances might also require attention. In 2015, for example, a supplier was convicted when acid from a package injured postal staff.
A chemical weapon?
It is also clear that acid violence is a global problem. Acid Survivors Trust International reports a significant number of attacks in India, Colombia, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Uganda and Cambodia. Often, there is also under-reporting as well as low prosecution rates – and women are disproportionately affected.
There is a need to think about how to identify and support good practice internationally – in terms of prevention and supporting victims. This can help the efficient sharing of expertise and resources globally.
One particularly well placed organisation to help foster discussion could be the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which is in charge of the international Chemical Weapons Convention. There are strong arguments that acid attacks fall within the scope of this convention. These agents attack the body in a similar way to some other chemical warfare weapon agents – particularly so called “less-lethal” agents designed to cause long term injury, such as blinding.
The OPCW has long dealt with the prevention of other kinds of chemical violence, and has experience in controlling chemicals. It could now potentially form part of the international response to acid attacks. Providing a forum for agenda raising, and establishing and supporting good practice internationally – particularly in terms of industry standard setting, and in the development of national level legislation.
This then could form part of a more holistic approach that compliments existing work in the areas of health and justice. Together, such initiatives could reduce the occurrence of these horrific attacks and help support victims.