Exploration 2D: For Teachers

Weapons and IHL

According to one of the most important principles of international humanitarian law (IHL), the only legitimate objective in war is to weaken the military forces of the enemy.

This principle, together with other IHL rules, puts limits on the types of weapons that combatants may use in war. Prohibited weapons include those that are incapable of distinguishing between civilians and military targets and those that cannot be specifically directed at a military objective or whose effects cannot be contained. Such weapons are referred to as ‘indiscriminate weapons.’ In addition, IHL restricts the use of weapons that cause suffering to combatants beyond what is needed to make them stop fighting. On the basis of these general rules, a number of IHL treaties have been adopted that prohibit or restrict the use of specific weapons. There are treaties on biological weapons, chemical weapons, blinding laser weapons and incendiary weapons (e.g. weapons designed to set fire to objects or to cause burn injuries).

Chemical and Biological Weapons

The use of chemical and biological weapons is prohibited under the 1925 Geneva Protocol (on Asphyxiating, Poisonous or other Gases and Bacteriological Methods of Warfare). This treaty was complemented and strengthened by the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention and the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, which prohibit the development, production, stockpiling, transfer and the use of such weapons. They also require the destruction of existing stockpiles. Under the Biological Weapons Convention, governments must destroy or divert to peaceful purposes all biological weapons within nine months of joining the treaty. The Chemical Weapons Convention requires governments to destroy all chemical weapons within 10 years of joining the treaty.

Blinding Laser Weapons

The use and transfer of blinding laser weapons is prohibited under Protocol IV to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons of 1995. This treaty also requires that all possible precautions be taken to avoid causing permanent blindness when using other laser systems.

Incendiary Weapons

Protocol III to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons of 1980 regulates the use of incendiary weapons (weapons that are designed to set fire to objects or to cause burn injuries). Governments and armed groups are prohibited from using incendiary weapons against civilians and may not make any military objectives located in civilian areas objects of attack by such weapons. The Protocol also prohibits the use of incendiary weapons against forests or other kinds of plant cover.

Nuclear Weapons

International law currently provides no comprehensive and universal prohibition on the use of nuclear weapons. However, in an advisory opinion in 1996, the International Court of Justice made it clear that the threat or use of nuclear weapons would, in general, be contrary to the principles and rules of IHL.

Weapons that Keep Killing After the War has Ended

Anti-personnel mines and explosive remnants of war, including unexploded cluster munitions, can put civilians at risk for years or even decades after the end of an armed conflict. In post-conflict settings, massive numbers of such weapons often remain on the ground. They can injure or kill anyone who comes near them. They also make vital subsistence activities, such as farming, hazardous and obstruct relief and reconstruction efforts.

Anti-personnel Mines

Anti-personnel mines are explosive devices placed under or on the ground. They are designed to be ‘victim-activated,’ meaning that they can be set off by the mere proximity, or the touch, of a person.

The 1997 Convention on the Prohibition of Anti- personnel Mines prohibits the use, stockpiling, production and transfer of anti-personnel mines and requires their destruction, whether they are in stockpiles or in the ground. Every government has four years to destroy its stockpiles of mines and ten years to clear mined areas that are under its control. Until the mines are cleared, governments have to take measures to protect civilians (for instance, by warning them of the danger of landmines and by marking and fencing off mined areas). The Convention also requires governments to provide assistance for the destruction of stockpiles, for mine clearance and mine risk education programmes, and for the care and rehabilitation of mine victims.

The use and production of anti-personnel mines have decreased dramatically since the Convention was adopted and the trade in these weapons has virtually stopped. Tens of millions of mines have been destroyed, and thousands of square kilometres of land have been cleared. Most importantly, the number of new casualties is decreasing significantly. But a great deal remains to be done to clear the minefields that remain and to ensure that victims receive adequate care and assistance.

Explosive Remnants of War

Explosive remnants of war are explosive munitions that are left behind in an area after the fighting has ended. They include unexploded artillery shells, grenades, mortar bombs, cluster submunitions, rockets and missiles. Civilians often believe such weapons are harmless, but they are, in fact, often lethal and unstable explosives that may go off if touched or disturbed.

Protocol V to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons on explosive remnants of war of 2003 requires governments and armed groups to clear all explosive remnants of war from the areas they control. In areas not controlled by them, they are to provide technical, material or financial assistance to facilitate the removal of explosive remnants of war that are a consequence of their operations. They must also take precautionary measures to protect civilians by warning them of the danger posed by explosive remnants of war, by providing risk education, and by marking, fencing off and monitoring affected areas. The Protocol further requires governments and armed groups to keep records of the types of explosive devices they have used or left behind, and where; and to share this information after the end of the conflict with the party controlling the affected areas and with organizations involved in clearance and related activities. Governments should also assist in the care, rehabilitation and socio-economic reintegration of victims of explosive remnants of war. Finally, governments are encouraged to provide assistance in dealing with existing problems associated with explosive remnants of war.

The adoption of Protocol V on explosive remnants of war was an important step forward. It applies to all explosive munitions that are used during armed conflict and is the first international agreement to require governments and armed groups to clear all unexploded and abandoned munitions after a war. It is important that as many countries as possible join and implement this treaty so that the impact of explosive remnants of war can be minimized in the future.

New Weapons

Under the first Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions (Protocol I) of 1977, governments are required to ensure that any new weapons they study, develop, acquire or adopt comply with the provisions of humanitarian law. Effective implementation of this provision is especially important in light of rapid developments in weapons technology. Technological and scientific advances have often been used to produce new weapons. It is the responsibility of all those involved (governments, the military, scientists, medical professionals, private companies, NGO [non-governmental organization] watchdog groups and ordinary concerned citizens) to remain vigilant and to take the necessary preventive steps so that science and technology are not exploited to develop weapons that would violate IHL.