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Chemical and Biological Weapons in the ‘New Wars’


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.

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  1. 1.

    For a comprehensive account on various aspects of, and approaches to, the taboo see Jefferson (2009).

  2. 2.

    The proper titles of these treaties are as follows: The Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare, otherwise known as the Geneva Protocol, signed on 17 June 1925, entering into force on 8 February 1928. The Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on Their Destruction, or BWC, opened for signature on 10 April 1972 and entering into force on 26 March 1975. The Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on Their Destruction opened for signature in Paris on 13 January 1993, and remained open for signature until its entry into force on 29 April 1997. The full text of the treaties can be found at

  3. 3.

    These are known as, respectively: the Final Act Of the International Peace Conference adopted on 29 July 1899 by the International Peace Conference 1899 in The Hague; and the Convention (IV) respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land and its annex: Regulations concerning the Laws and Customs of War on Land, adopted 18 October 1907 by the International Peace Conference 1907 in The Hague, and entered into force on 26 January 1910. Relevant parts of the 1899 agreement and the 1907 Convention can be found at

  4. 4.

    The US delegate, Theodore Burton, presented a text that formed the basis of CBW related discussions throughout the Conference. In an early intervention at the first meeting of the General Committee held in Geneva on 7th May 1925, he stated: “Before we pass from the consideration of Article I, I must express the very earnest desire of the Government and people of the United States that some provision be inserted in this Convention relating to the use of asphyxiating, poisonous, and deleterious gases”. The nature of the ‘provision to be inserted’, however, was disputed and subsequently referred to both a legal and a military technical committee. League of Nations (1925: 155).

  5. 5.

    Certainly, the Soviet reservations declared that, “[t]he said protocol only binds the government of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in relations to the States which have signed and ratified or which have definitely acceded to the protocol”. See Prince (1942: 425–445).

  6. 6.

    Earlier this year, at the Third Review Conference of the CWC in The Hague, States Parties to the Convention have once again failed to make headway in clarifying the character of domestic riot control and law enforcement despite long running attempts to do so. There are various reasons for this failure to agree upon a common definition, some directly related to the difficulty in defining the terms under the Convention. In this case, this divisive and difficult issue was sacrificed in order to reach a consensus on issues that were perceived to be more pressing and achievable in the current political climate.

  7. 7.

    In addition to these focused agreements, the 1977 Environmental Modification Convention, contains provisions prohibiting “military or any other hostile use of environmental modification techniques having widespread, longlasting or severe effects as the means of destruction, damage or injury”—a particular focus is placed upon dangers arising from scientific and technical advances opening possibilities for new means of warfare with regards to modification of the environment with “effects extremely harmful to human welfare”. The Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques, otherwise known as the EnMod Convention, opened for signature at Geneva on 18 May 1977, entering into force on 5 October 1978.

  8. 8.

    We use the term regime here in the sense of “Implicit or explicit principles, norms, rules and decision-making procedures around which actors’ expectations converge in a given area of international relations” see Krasner (1982).

  9. 9.

    This is the normative backbone of these treaties, the definition of prohibited purposes by a general purpose criterion and what elevates them above ‘mere’ disarmament treaties, although disarmament and destruction of stockpiles and facilities are provisions also contained in these treaties. See, for example Littlewood (2005).

  10. 10.

    Any conceptual category using the terms ‘modern’, ‘new’, or ‘post’ are vulnerable to attack, and give rise to various misconceptions. Various terms have been used to describe the phenomenon of changes in the nature of conflict—hybrid wars, privatised wars, post-modern wars, among other terms; even the validity of a change in the nature of conflict is open to question. The concept of ‘new wars’ has been established as a useful conceptualisation, it has been widely debated, criticised and clarified so that it yields a rich conceptual back drop (Kaldor 2012).

  11. 11.

    The thresholds between the condition of armed conflict, war, peace, and organized violence are, of course, not defined—there is no threshold—this is part of the complication.

  12. 12.

    The use of chemical and biological weapons has a long history, see for example Mayor (2003). Here we concentrate on ‘modern’ uses.

  13. 13.

    Historical examples include anti-colonialist Mau Mau movement in Kenya are alleged to have poisoned livestock with African milk bush in 1952; the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) contaminated Sri Lanka tea crops with potassium cyanide in an attempt to hamper exports in the mid-1980s.

  14. 14.

    These episodes of alleged uses of chemical weapons in the protracted civil war in Syria are still subject to an ongoing independent UN investigation. At the time of writing the UN mission to investigate allegations of the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic has investigated the use of chemical weapons in only one location, and confirmed the use of sarin on 21 August 2013 in the Ghouta area of Damascus.

  15. 15.

    The release of chemical agents on 21 August 2013 has been independently verified by a UN mission of inspectors who reported on 16 September 2013 (UN 2013). However, the source of the attack is, at the time of writing, still unclear.


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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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Correspondence to Kai Ilchmann.

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Ilchmann, K., Revill, J. Chemical and Biological Weapons in the ‘New Wars’. Sci Eng Ethics 20, 753–767 (2014).

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  • Biological and chemical weapons
  • Taboo
  • New wars
  • BWC
  • CWC
  • Norms