Science and Engineering Ethics

, Volume 20, Issue 3, pp 753–767 | Cite as

Chemical and Biological Weapons in the ‘New Wars’

  • Kai IlchmannEmail author
  • James Revill
Original Paper


The strategic use of disease and poison in warfare has been subject to a longstanding and cross-cultural taboo that condemns the hostile exploitation of poisons and disease as the act of a pariah. In short, biological and chemical weapons are simply not fair game. The normative opprobrium is, however, not fixed, but context dependent and, as a social phenomenon, remains subject to erosion by social (or more specifically, antisocial) actors. The cross cultural understanding that fighting with poisons and disease is reprehensible, that they are taboo, is codified through a web of interconnected measures, principal amongst these are the 1925 Geneva Protocol; the Biological Weapons Convention; and the Chemical Weapons Convention. Whilst these treaties have weathered the storm of international events reasonably well, their continued health is premised on their being ‘tended to’ in the face of contextual changes, particularly facing changes in science and technology, as well as the changed nature and character of conflict. This article looks at the potential for normative erosion of the norm against chemical and biological weapons in the face of these contextual changes and the creeping legitimization of chemical and biological weapons.


Biological and chemical weapons Taboo New wars BWC CWC Norms 



The authors are grateful to Julian Perry Robinson and two anonymous reviewers for their considerate and useful comments on earlier drafts of this article. All remaining errors are of the authors’ own making.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute of International RelationsPontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio de Janeiro (PUC-Rio)Rio de JaneiroBrazil
  2. 2.Harvard Sussex Program, Science and Technology Policy Research (SPRU)University of SussexSussexUK

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