The 1899 Hague Declaration concerning expanding bullets:A treaty effective for more than 100 years faces complex contemporary issues

31-03-2003 Article, International Review of the Red Cross, No. 849, by Robin Coupland, Dominique Loye


Robin Coupland is a surgeon and former coordinator of ICRC surgical activities. He now works as the ICRC’s adviser on armed violence and the effects of weapons.
Dominique Loye is a physicist and currently works as Technical Adviser in the ICRC’s Mines-Arms Unit. He has previously had field assignments for the ICRC. 
 “The Contracting Parties agree to abstain from the use of 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.” Declaration (IV, 3) concerning Expanding Bullets. The Hague, 29 July 1899.
The 1899 Hague Declaration (the Declaration) is a treaty prohibition based on particular technical specifications about a weapon system, namely, the construction of bullets. The Declaration has been widely adhered to and has assumed the status of customary law. Although there have been allegations of violations of this treaty, to our knowledge none have been proven. From this point of view, the Declaration could be regarded as an effective treaty.
However, there have been considerable developments in the construction of firearms and their ammunition during the twentieth century, together with a better understanding of the factors which cause large wounds. It has become evident that adhering to the strict wording of the Declaration does not always achieve its apparent object and purpose, that is, to eliminate the unnecessary injury and suffering associated with very large bullet wounds. Consequently, more than a one hundred years later, development of this aspect of international humanitarian law and the maintenance of a coherent legal discourse require consideration not only of treaty law but also of ballistics, the impact of weapons upon health and a variety of military issues.    
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