Could our approach to chemical weapons help reduce the threat of acid attacks?

military person wearing a gasmask and protective clothing

UK expertise in preventing the misuse of chemical weapons should be applied to tackling the alarming rise in acid violence.

On 13 July, five acid attacks occurred across north London in the space of ninety minutes, causing “life-changing” injuries in at least one case, with others severely injured. Two of the alleged attackers have been arrested, yet little is known about them. This follows several incidents of acid violence in London, including an attack last month against Resham Khan and Jameel Muhktar.

Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Cressida Dick, has sought to calm the brewing hysteria, stating that “I don’t want people to think this is happening all over London all the time, it is really not”. But the Met is now working with the Home Office to see if any changes in the law are required. Earlier this month the Home Office and the National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC) held a joint summit on acid attacks in which the government’s approach was laid out. This includes reviewing sentencing for such attacks, ensuring legislation is effectively used, and “working with retailers to…restrict access to the most harmful products.”

Acid violence is nothing new. Reports of vitriolage (the throwing of acid) in London date back to at least 1842. By 1932, it was observed that the “crime of throwing vitriol” had become so common in the UK, it was “almost a stain on the national character”.

Today, the problem appears to be global. In India, it has been estimated that there are at least 1000 acid attacks each year; in Colombia, at least 100 a year. In the UK, figures from the Met suggest a significant increase in incidents involving “noxious or corrosive gas e.g. acid thrown” or the “causing of explosions, sending explosive substances or throwing corrosive fluids with intent to do grievous bodily harm”.

Acid violence is not limited to any particular race, religious creed or nationality and – although the victims in these attacks are overwhelmingly female – it does not always fit the pattern of gender violence. Three recent cases in the UK illustrate this: the attack on Katie Piper was orchestrated by two men; Naomi Oni’s attacker was female, and Berlinah Wallace is awaiting trial for the murder of Mark van Dongen.

In all three cases, the initial charge was grievous bodily harm with intent – with Berlinah Wallace’s later changed to murder – with the sentences in the first two cases ranging from indefinite detention with a minimum tariff of six years, to twelve years. This illustrates the breadth of custodial sentences that can be imposed on alleged perpetrators of acid violence, who are most commonly charged under Section 29 of the Offences Against the Person Act, which makes it an offence to “unlawfully and maliciously cast or throw upon or otherwise apply to any person any corrosive fluid or destructive or explosive substance with intent to burn, maim, disfigure or disable any person”.

So while there is legislation in place, the consistency and severity of sentences imposed for acid violence merits closer attention – as does consideration of how the materials used could be better regulated.

Whilst it remains debatable whether acid constitutes a chemical weapon, we believe there may be much to learn from the approach taken by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), and its respective national authorities to prohibit the development and use of chemical weapons. Continue reading.