Like what you've read?

On Line Opinion is the only Australian site where you get all sides of the story. We don't
charge, but we need your support. Here�s how you can help.

  • Advertise

    We have a monthly audience of 70,000 and advertising packages from $200 a month.

  • Volunteer

    We always need commissioning editors and sub-editors.

  • Contribute

    Got something to say? Submit an essay.

 The National Forum   Donate   Your Account   On Line Opinion   Forum   Blogs   Polling   About   
On Line Opinion logo ON LINE OPINION - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate


On Line Opinion is a not-for-profit publication and relies on the generosity of its sponsors, editors and contributors. If you would like to help, contact us.


RSS 2.0

Warfare - ancient rules, modern responsibilities

By Jacques Forster - posted Friday, 24 June 2005

In February 1918, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) made a forceful public appeal to the warring nations of World War I, against the use of poison gas. Describing gas weapons as a "barbarous invention which science is bringing to perfection", the ICRC protested "with all the force at our command against such warfare which can only be called criminal" and warned of "a struggle which will exceed in barbarity anything which history has known so far".

In the same year, Fritz Haber won the Nobel Prize for chemistry. Inspired by the fear the world's population would soon outpace global food production, Haber invented a process to convert atmospheric nitrogen into agricultural fertiliser. Today, this process supplies food for an estimated two billion people.
But Haber did not only focus on food production. He thought chemistry could provide a solution to the deadlock in the trenches of World War I. This belief led to his playing a pivotal role in the first gas attack in military history on April 22, 1915. About 150 tons of chlorine gas blew across the fields of Flanders in Belgium. Hundreds of soldiers died, by what was described as "drowning on dry land". With the taboo against poison in warfare breached, the use of mustard gas - by both sides of the conflict - which burns the skin and causes blindness, followed.

We can only imagine what World War II would have been like if the prohibition of poisonous weapons had not been restored with the 1925 Protocol. Many fundamental humanitarian principles were utterly violated during those six years of conflict, but the 1925 Protocol was respected by all belligerents. It might be argued that the fear of reprisals was the main deterrent. Although this is likely, whether because of a fear of reprisals or for some other reason, the Protocol drew a line no belligerent dared transgress.


The taboo against the use of poison in warfare, codified in the 1925 Protocol, dates back more than two millennia, and was built upon the rules of warfare shared by diverse moral and cultural systems. Ancient Greeks and Romans customarily observed a prohibition on the use of poison and poisonous weapons. By 500 BC, the Manu Law of War in India had banned the use of such arms. A thousand years later, regulations on the conduct of war drawn from the Koran by the Saracens specifically forbade poisoning.

Public abhorrence of gas warfare, reflected in the ICRC's 1918 appeal, as well as the call for a prohibition of the use of gas by the International Conference of the Red Cross in 1921, contributed to the diplomatic momentum which culminated in the treaty we honour today, 80 years after its adoption. Despite a handful of well known violations, the norm against poison weapons enshrined in the 1925 Protocol has been respected in nearly all the hundreds of armed conflicts since it was adopted.

Our responsibility today is not only to celebrate this success, but also to ask ourselves how vigilant we are in making sure that poisoning and the deliberate spread of disease never again occurs in warfare or for any other hostile purpose. We must ask ourselves, soberly, how healthy the Biological and Chemical Weapons Conventions' regimes are in the face of recent technical and political developments.

The work of Fritz Haber brings us face to face with a terrible truth about the scientific progress. Nearly all major advances, no matter what their domain, have been turned to hostile use. At the beginning of the 21st century, we have to consider what the future of humanity will be should the many beneficial discoveries in life sciences, biotechnology and pharmacology we are now witnessing be put to hostile use.

The recent advances in biosciences could make chemical or biological weapons more effective and safer to use, easier to make, more difficult to detect - therefore more attractive to a State, group or individual wishing to plan an attack. It may perhaps be possible to alter people's behaviour, even their fertility, without detection and from a distance. The use of pharmaceutical agents as weapons is now a reality which has had demonstrable and tragic results. The potential to target a particular ethnic group with a biological agent is probably not far off. These scenarios are not the product of the ICRC's imagination. They have either occurred, or have been identified by countless independent and governmental experts. It is this concern which led the ICRC to make another public appeal in September 2002 on "Biotechnology, Weapons and Humanity".

The Appeal carried three messages. It drew attention to the potential risks inherent in certain advances in the life sciences and biotechnology. It underscored the pertinence of the legal and ethical norms which prohibit poisoning and deliberate spread of infectious disease and emphasised the responsibility of governments, the scientific community and industry to prevent the use of scientific advances for anything but the benefit of humanity.


The response to the ICRC's appeal has been mixed. The most encouraging reaction has been from scientists and some major scientific academies in beginning to reflect on the risks of misuse of their work, and their legal and ethical responsibility to prevent this. Unfortunately, many major actors in the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries have been reluctant to engage in discussion of potential misuse of their research and products. However, we are encouraged that efforts are underway to engage the relevant industries in a "Charter" of responsible practices.

We also welcome efforts being made by States Parties to the Biological Weapons Convention to identify a range of measures to prevent and punish violations of its provisions. We regret the lack of success of the efforts to adopt a compliance monitoring Protocol for the BWC, which continues to inhibit agreement on a comprehensive agenda for urgently needed concerted action. While there is growing concern about the threat of terrorism and the potential of using biological or chemical agents, it must be recognised that this is only one of a variety of threats of misuse of biological agents, and that any framework for addressing the full range of threats must include the 1925 Protocol and the Biological and Chemical Weapons Conventions.

Given the massive increases in both the number of potentially dangerous agents and the means to deliver them, their proliferation and the multiplication of groups with access to such agents, humanity risks losing the struggle against poisoning and the deliberate spread of disease. But this is not inevitable. We can minimise the risks by focusing our joint efforts on reaffirming existing legal and ethical norms and engaging not only government experts but also all relevant scientists and industries in co-operative preventive action.

Public abhorrence, ethical norms, codes of conduct, law and practical preventive measures are the tools with which humanity has protected itself, through generations and over several millennia, against poisoning and the deliberate spread of disease. The weakening of these protections - be it through neglect, yielding to the temptation to develop new types of chemical or biological weapons, a political impasse among major powers or the relegation of responsibility for these norms to experts - does not serve the interests of humanity. As the ICRC stated in its 2002 appeal, "We urge you to consider the threshold at which we all stand and to remember our common humanity".

The norms contained in the 1925 Geneva Protocol and the two Conventions based on this instrument are among the oldest and most fundamental elements of international humanitarian law. We have inherited these on trust from previous generations. But to survive they must be more than legal documents - they are not self-fulfilling. The vigilance and sense of responsibility they demand must be felt by political leaders, by journalists and the wider public, every scientist in relevant fields, those who fund scientific research and by the relevant industries and private companies. In the coming years, the 1925 Protocol is likely to be tested as never before. We cannot afford to ignore the risks, weaken the rules or decline our responsibilities. Some of the effects of chemical and biological warfare are already well known. We should not have to witness them or some new horror before the responsible actors shoulder their responsibilities.

  1. Pages:
  2. Page 1
  3. All

Article edited by Virginia Tressider.
If you'd like to be a volunteer editor too, click here.

Statement made by Jacques Forster, Vice-President, International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), at an International Seminar on the Biological and Chemical Weapons Threat, Geneva, June 10, 2005.

Discuss in our Forums

See what other readers are saying about this article!

Click here to read & post comments.

Share this:
reddit this reddit thisbookmark with Del.icio.usdigg thisseed newsvineSeed NewsvineStumbleUpon StumbleUponsubmit to propellerkwoff it

About the Author

Jacques Forster is the Vice-President, International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Photo of Jacques Forster
Article Tools
Comment Comments
Print Printable version
Subscribe Subscribe
Email Email a friend

About Us Search Discuss Feedback Legals Privacy