International humanitarian law contains basic principles and rules governing the choice of weapons and prohibits or restricts the employment of certain weapons. The ICRC plays a leading role in the promotion and development of law regulating the use of certain weapons.
From the beginning, international humanitarian law (IHL) has endeavoured to limit the suffering caused by armed conflict. To achieve this, IHL addresses both the behaviour of combatants and the choice of means and methods of warfare, including weapons.
Early treaties prohibited the use of exploding projectiles weighing less than 400 grams (in 1868) and bullets that flatten upon entering the human body (in 1899). In 1925, governments adopted the Geneva Protocol, which outlaws the use of poison gas and bacteriological methods of warfare. This treaty was updated with the adoption of the Biological Weapons Convention in 1972 and the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1993, both of which strengthened the 1925 Protocol by extending prohibitions to the development, production, acquisition, stockpiling, retention and transfer of biological and chemical weapons, and requiring their destruction.
A number of conventional weapons are regulated in the 1980 Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons. This Convention prohibits the use of munitions that use fragments not detectable by X-ray and blinding laser weapons. It also limits the use of incendiary weapons as well as mines, booby traps and "other devices". The Convention is also the first treaty to establish a framework to address the post-conflict hazards of unexploded and abandoned ordnance.
Anti-personnel landmines are prohibited under the 1997 Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on their Destruction. More than three-quarters of the world's countries have joined the Convention, which has had a positive impact in terms of destruction of stockpiles, mine clearance, reduction of casualties and assistance to victims.
On 30 May 2008, 107 States adopted the Convention on Cluster Munitions. The treaty's obligations became legally binding on the 30 ratifying States on 1 August 2010 and subsequently for other ratifying States. By adopting and signing the Convention, States have taken a major step towards ending the death, injury and suffering caused by these weapons.
The unregulated widespread availability of arms contributes to violations of international humanitarian law (IHL) and hampers delivery of assistance to victims. Since 2006, States have been discussing a global "Arms Trade Treaty" (ATT). In January 2010, the UN General Assembly decided to convene the 2012 UN Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty to elaborate a legally binding instrument on the highest possible international standards for the transfer of conventional arms. The ICRC supports the elaboration of a comprehensive, legally binding ATT that establishes common international standards for the responsible transfer and brokering of all conventional weapons and their ammunition.
The destructive power of nuclear weapons puts them in a category of their own, yet there is no comprehensive or universal ban on their use under international law. Nevertheless, in July 1996 the International Court of Justice concluded that their use would generally be contrary to the principles and rules of IHL. The ICRC finds it difficult to envisage how any use of nuclear weapons could be compatible with the rules of IHL. In view of the unique characteristics of nuclear weapons, the ICRC further calls on all States to ensure that such weapons are never used again, regardless of their views on the legality of such use.
Faced with the constant and rapid evolution of weapons, the ICRC has published a Guide to Legal Reviews of New Weapons, Means and Methods of Warfare to help governments fulfil their obligation to ensure that the use of new weapons, means or methods of warfare comply with the rules of IHL.
The following is an overview of weapons that are regulated by IHL treaties.
Explosive projectiles weighing less than 400 grams
Declaration of Saint Petersburg (1868)
Bullets that expand or flatten in the human body
Hague Declaration (1899)
Poison and poisoned weapons
Hague Regulations (1907)
Geneva Protocol (1925)
Convention on the prohibition of chemical weapons (1993)
Geneva Protocol (1925)
Convention on the prohibition of biological weapons (1972)
Weapons that injure by fragments which, in the human body, escape detection by X-rays
Protocol I (1980) to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons
Protocol III (1980) to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons
Blinding laser weapons
Protocol IV (1995) to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons
Mines, booby traps and "other devices"
Protocol II, as amended (1996), to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons
Convention on the Prohibition of Anti-Personnel Mines (Ottawa Treaty) (1997)
Explosive Remnants of War
Protocol V (2003) to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons
Convention on Cluster Munitions (2008)