“Considering:
That the progress of civilization should have the effect of alleviating as much as possible the calamities of war;
That the only legitimate object which States should endeavour to accomplish during war is to weaken the military forges of the enemy;
That for this purpose it is sufficient to disable the greatest possible number of men;
That this object would be exceeded by the employment of arms which uselessly aggravate the sufferings of disabled men, or render their death inevitable;
That the employment of such arms would, therefore, be contrary to the laws of humanity;
The Contracting Parties engage mutually to renounce, in case of war among themselves, the employment by their military or naval troops of any projectile of a weight below 400 grammes, which is either explosive or charged with fulminating or inflammable substances.”

The above quotation is from the Declaration of St. Petersburg of 1868.  The principles of this declaration are still valid in humanitarian law:  Weapons should only affect the armed forces of the enemy and the effect of the weapon should give the least possible amount of suffering to casualties.

In general, no weapon in itself is prohibited by humanitarian law.  The context of the concrete use of the weapon has to be analyzed.  Thus, small nuclear weapons might be used in way that concurs with the general principles of humanitarian law while the use of large, “city-busting” nuclear weapons almost certainly would be in conflict with humanitarian law.

Even so, certain weapons have been subjected to self-regulation:

Expanding Bullets
Declaration III of The Hague Convention of 1899 prohibited bullets “which expand or flatten easily in the human body, such as bullets with a hard envelope which does not entirely cover the core, or is pierced with incisions” also known as, respectively, Dum-Dum and hollow point bullets.

The Hague Convention of 1899 also saw prohibition of bombing from balloons and poison bullets.  These prohibitions have since been outmoded or superseded.

Chemical and Biological Warfare
The Geneva Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gasses, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare of 1925 extended on the declarations of the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907.  The content of the protocol should be self-evident from its verbose title, but there is disagreement whether “Other Gasses” should be interpreted as all other gasses or simply as some other gasses.  Most countries originally agreed on the stricter interpretation, but some, notably United Kingdom and United States have since chosen the less strict interpretation and have decided that the prohibition does not cover tear gas.

Even though the protocol declares the prohibition of “all analogous liquids, materials or devices” this does not cover the radioactive side effects of nuclear weapons or depleted uranium shells.  On the other hand, a “dirty bomb” designed primarily to spread radioactive material would most certainly be prohibited under this protocol.

Many countries maintain chemical weapons regardless of their ratification of this protocol as they have reserved the right to respond in kind if an enemy attacks with poison gas.  The protocol should therefore be seen as a prohibition of “first use” rather than a total ban.

In 1972 the 1925 Geneva Protocol was reaffirmed with the creation of the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on Their Destruction (the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC)).  This obviously goes much further than the Geneva Protocol, and it states:

“Each State Party to this Convention undertakes never in any circumstances to develop, produce, stockpile or otherwise acquire or retain:  (1) Microbial or other biological agents, or toxins whatever their origin or method of production, of types and in quantities that have no justification for prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes; (2) Weapons, equipment or means of delivery designed to use such agents or toxins for hostile purposes or in armed conflict.”

It furthermore commits the ratifying parties to destroy any existing stockpiles, in other words:  A total ban.

The corresponding ban on chemical weapons (Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons aka the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC)) is similar in wording, but was only put together as relatively recently as 1993.

Environmental Modification
This might seem in the realm of dystopian science fiction, but the contracting parties of the Environmental Modification Convention of 1977 “undertake not to engage in military or any other hostile use of environmental modification techniques having widespread, long-lasting or severe effects as the means of destruction, damage or injury to any other State Party”.  This includes manipulating the “dynamics, composition or structure of the Earth, including its biota, lithosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere, or of outer space.”  It is unclear whether the burning of the Kuwaiti oil fields by Iraq in 1991 is covered under this convention.

Nevertheless, the burning of the oil fields would probably be prohibited because of the Protocol (I) Additional to the Geneva Convention of 1977 which forbids the use of methods or weapons “which are intended, or may be expected, to cause widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment”.  This would also prohibit the large-scale use of Agent Orange or similar defoliants.

Non-Detectable Fragments
Fragments that x-ray cannot detect makes it harder to treat wounds.  The ban of these are part (Protocol I) of the the Conventions on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) of 1983

Mines and Booby-Traps
Mines and Booby-traps are the subject of Protocol II of the CCW.  This began as a ban against the use of land mines either indiscriminately or targeted at the civilian population, and at booby-traps concealed as “apparently harmless portable” objects, or, explicitly, concealed in or by

  1. internationally recognized protective emblems, signs or signals;
  2. sick, wounded or dead persons;
  3. burial or cremation sites or graves;
  4. medical facilities, medical equipment, medical supplies or medical transportation;
  5. children's toys or other portable objects or products specially designed for the feeding, health, hygiene, clothing or education of children;
  6. food or drink;
  7. kitchen utensils or appliances except in military establishments, military locations or military supply depots;
  8. objects clearly of a religious nature;
  9. historic monuments, works of art or places of worship which constitute the cultural or spiritual heritage of peoples;
  10. animals or their carcasses.

Land mines targeted at military equipment and personel is exempt from the ban, but the mines must be detectable by conventional means, and they need to either self destruct or self deactivate after a given time.

A complete ban on anti-personnel mines came with the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty also known as the Ottawa Landmines Convention.

Incendiary Weapons
The third protocol of the CCW deals with incendiary weapons such as napalm.  It does not include weapons where the incendiary effect is secondary.  The use of incendiary weapons against civilians or civilian objects, or attacks against military targets in cities with air-delivered bombs is prohibited.  If sufficient care is taken to minimize any risk to civilians, incendiary weapons may be used against military targets even in or near cities, but never through air-delivery.

It is also forbidden to use incendiary weapons against forests just for the heck of it.  If, however, the use incendiary weapons serves a purpose it is allowed.  Go figure.

Laser Weapons
The fourth and, so far, final protocol of the CCW deals with blinding laser light.  Military use of laser on the battlefield (for instance, LADAR, range finding, and laser guided munitions) is allowed even though there is a risk of incidental blindness, but laser weapons designed to blind the enemy permanently is forbidden.

Nuclear Weapons
Nuclear weapons have been the subject of many treaties, but most of them have tried to limit the number of weapons, rather than to do away with them altogether.  These treaties could therefore be considered strategic disarmament treaties rather than treaties founded in the principles of humanitarian law.

Nonetheless, the horror of a possible nuclear holocaust has most certainly contributed to the disarmament efforts.  The most significant treaty limiting the extent of nuclear weapons is the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) of 1968.  The parties to the treaty agree to limit nuclear weapons to those already possessing them.  In return for not acquiring nuclear weapons, the non-nuclear state parties are guaranteed help in establishing civilian nuclear power programmes, and the nuclear states commits themselves to a gradual disarmament.

This treaty has been succesful as countries trying to obtain nuclear power status are widely condemned by the international society, but it has not been able to contain nuclear weapons completely to the original five nuclear state parties to the treaty.  The treaty was extended indefinitely in 1995, and the nuclear state parties to the treaty has renewed their promises to work for an eventual complete elimination of nuclear weapons.


Further reading:

  • www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/lawofwar/decpeter.htm
  • www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/lawofwar/dec99-03.htm
  • fas-www.harvard.edu/~hsp/1925.html
  • www.unog.ch/disarm/distreat/bac_72.htm
  • www.fas.harvard.edu/~hsp/chemical.html
  • www.opcw.org/html/db/cwc/more/enmod.html
  • www.unhchr.ch/html/menu3/b/93.htm
  • www.mineaction.org/misc/dynamic_overview.cfm?did=132#p1
  • www.icbl.org/treaty/treatyenglish.html
  • www.fas.org/nuke/control/npt/text/index.html

(This is part of my personal quest (study) on international and humanitarian law)

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