International Humanitarian Law and the Chemical Weapons Convention
International humanitarian law contains principles and rules governing the choice of weapons and prohibiting or restricting the use of certain weapons. The ICRC plays a leading role in the promotion and development of law regulating the use of certain weapons.
In World War I, both sides used poison gas to inflict significant battlefield casualties and agonizing suffering. Such weapons basically consisted of well-known commercial chemicals put into standard munitions such as grenades and artillery shells. Chlorine, phosgene (a choking agent) and mustard gas (which inflicts painful burns on the skin) were among the chemicals used. The results were indiscriminate and often devastating: more than a hundred thousand deaths resulted from their use. Since World War I, chemical weapons have caused more than one million casualties globally.
International Humanitarian law is generally accepted as binding in relationships between states and nations. It serves as a framework for the practice of stable and organized international relations. International law differs from national legal systems in that it is primarily concerned with nations rather than private citizens. National law may become international law when treaties delegate national jurisdictions to supranational tribunals such as the European Court of Human Rights or the International Criminal Court. Treaties such as the Geneva Conventions may require national law to conform. International law is consent-based governance. This means that a state member of the international community is not obliged to abide by international law unless it has expressly consented to a particular course of conduct. This is an issue of state sovereignty. The (Geneva) Protocol, which prohibited the use of chemical weapons in warfare, was signed after World War 1. However, the Protocol had a number of shortcomings, including the fact that it did not prohibit the development, production or stockpiling of chemical weapons, while it was also problematic that many states that ratified the Protocol reserved the right to use prohibited weapons against states that were not party to the protocol, or as retaliation in kind if chemical weapons were used against them.
Poison gasses were used during World War II in Nazi concentration camps and in Asia, but not on European battlefields. However, the Cold War was a period of significant development, manufacture and stockpiling of chemical weapons, during which an estimated 25 states developed chemical weapon capabilities. Since the end of World War II, chemical weapons have reportedly been used in only rare cases, notably by Iraq (Saddam Hussein’s regime) against Kurdish civilians and Iran 1980-1988.
The Chemical Weapons Convention is an agreement which outlaws the production, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons and their precursors. Its full name is the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction. The Chemical Weapons Convention was adopted by the Disarmament Conference in Geneva on 3 September 1992. The Chemical Weapons Convention allows for the stringent verification of compliance by State Parties.