Chemical and biological weapons

08 April 2013

The international community banned the use of chemical and biological weapons after World War I and reinforced the ban in 1972 and 1993 by prohibiting the development, production, stockpiling and transfer of these weapons. Today's advances in life sciences and biotechnology, as well as changes in the security environment, have increased concern that long-standing restraints on the use of chemical and biological weapons may be ignored or eroded.

The misuse of science or of scientific achievements to create weapons that poison and spread disease has always provoked alarm and abhorrence in the public mind. The ICRC summed up the public horror at the use of such weapons in its appeal in February 1918, calling them "barbarous inventions" that can "only be called criminal". For centuries there have been taboos against such weapons, but the use of poisonous gas in World War I led to the first international agreement – the 1925 Geneva Protocol – banning asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases and bacteriological methods of warfare.

Despite the huge loss of life and destructiveness of World War II, and the crimes committed against humanity, the main belligerents did not use chemical or biological weapons against each other. That may have been due to a fear of reprisals using similar weapons, but the 1925 Geneva Protocol had nevertheless established a new and clear norm in international law.

The Protocol has been respected in nearly all of the hundreds of armed conflicts that have taken place since 1925. The handful of well-known and high-profile violations have provoked widespread international condemnation and in some cases criminal prosecutions.

The 1925 Protocol was a landmark in international humanitarian law. Further legal instruments followed in the form of Conventions adopted by States in 1972 and 1993.

The 1972 Convention, usually referred to as the Biological Weapons Convention or the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC), was a major step towards the total elimination of these abhorrent weapons. As the use of such weapons was already banned by the 1925 Protocol, the Convention prohibited the development, production, stockpiling, acquisition, retention and transfer of such weapons, including their delivery systems, and required their destruction.

The Convention also required each country to enact national legislation to enforce its prohibitions. Regular review conferences of all signatories monitor compliance with the terms of the Convention and adopt recommendations to promote its implementation and effectiveness.

The 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) was a similar legal development, extending the prohibition on use in the 1925 Protocol to the development, production, stockpiling, retention and transfer of chemical weapons, including their delivery systems. It also covered their destruction.

Because achievements in chemistry can nevertheless bring benefits to humankind, the Convention both promotes and supervises the development of the chemical industry worldwide.

International verification measures are the responsibility of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, based in The Hague. It provides technical assistance to States in implementing the provisions of the Convention. Each State is also required to set up a national authority to ensure liaison and implementation.

The huge potential for both good and harm that major advances in the chemical and biological sciences bring, means that vigilance against the misuse of these advances to develop chemical and biological weapons remains vitally important.

In response to such concerns, the ICRC launched an appeal in September 2002 on "Biotechnology, Weapons and Humanity". It focused not only on existing capabilities for the misuse of science but also on emerging ones such as altering existing diseases to make them more harmful, manufacturing viruses from synthetic materials, and creating chemicals that alter consciousness, behaviour or fertility.

The appeal called for renewed efforts to combat the emerging threats, in particular by mobilizing what it called the "web of prevention" – a global network of all those involved in life sciences and biotechnology, public, private, scientific and lay, who could help prevent the catastrophic consequences of unregulated biotechnological development.

More recently, the ICRC has raised concerns about the interest among police, security and armed forces in using toxic chemicals – primarily dangerous anaesthetic drugs – as law-enforcement weapons designed to render targets unconscious or otherwise severely incapacitated. These substances have been described as "incapacitating chemical agents".

These are not riot-control agents – commonly known as "tear gas" – which are permitted under the Chemical Weapons Convention as a means for "law enforcement including domestic riot control purposes" only.

The ICRC convened two international expert meetings in 2010 and 2012 to explore the implications of "incapacitating chemical agents". Through this process it was established that using these weapons would endanger the life and health of those exposed, risk undermining the international law prohibiting chemical weapons, and constitute a "slippery slope" towards the reintroduction of chemical weapons in armed conflict.

In order to counter these risks, in February 2013 the ICRC appealed to all States to limit the use of toxic chemicals as weapons for law enforcement purposes to riot-control agents only.