A Guide to International Laws Regarding Weapons in Warfare

Fancied Facts
7 min readFeb 22, 2024
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Warfare, as destructive and grim as it may be, has a set of rules, regulations, and laws that govern its conduct. Among these rules, the ones concerning the use of weapons are of paramount importance. This article delves into a comprehensive understanding of the various types of weapons and their legality, or lack thereof, in the international arena.

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Weapons and International Humanitarian Law

International Humanitarian Law (IHL), originating from the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and its Additional Protocols, aims to minimize the impact of war on civilians and non-combatants. This law expressly forbids the use of weapons that cause indiscriminate harm. However, the interpretation of “indiscriminate” varies, leading to numerous additional treaties outlawing specific types of weapons.

Historically, IHL has successfully limited the use of certain weapons by states. However, the increasing involvement of non-state actors like militias and criminal networks poses a significant challenge to these regulations.

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Biological Weapons

The 1972 Biological Weapons Convention marked the first treaty to ban an entire category of weapons completely. It prohibits the development, production, and stockpiling of biological and toxin weapons. While the prohibition of these weapons is almost universally accepted, there are a few notable exceptions. For example, israel has signed but not ratified the convention, and Egypt, North Korea, South Sudan, and the Palestinian leadership have not signed at all.

Despite the convention, chemical weapons have been recently employed in Syria and Iraq. A joint investigation by the United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) concluded that both Syrian forces have used chemical weapons.

Chemical Weapons

Chemical weapons are largely regulated by the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which came into force in 1997. The CWC outlaws any weapon that uses a “toxic chemical.” These can be broadly categorized into choking agents, nerve agents, blister agents, and blood agents. Notable exceptions to the convention’s adherence include Myanmar, North Korea, and Syria.

Recent reports suggest that chemical weapons have been used in both Syria and Iraq. In Syria, the Bashar Al-Assad regime forces have been accused of systematically dropping shells containing the choking agent chlorine in residential areas.

Landmines and Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs)

The use of landmines and IEDs is regulated by the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty and the 1980 Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) Protocol II. The Mine Ban Treaty prohibits anti-personnel mine use, production, stockpiling, and transfer. IEDs that are activated by victims, like those activated by tripwires or pressure plates, are also banned.

Despite these treaties, non-state actors are increasingly using victim-activated improvised landmines. According to the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor, non-state armed groups used anti-personnel mines, including victim-activated improvised mines, in at least 10 countries in 2015.

israel’s use of cluster munitions in Lebanon has been a subject of controversy and criticism, particularly during the 2006 Lebanon War. Cluster munitions are weapons that release multiple smaller submunitions over a wide area, posing a significant risk to civilians both during and after conflicts. Here’s an overview of how israel’s use of cluster bombs in Lebanon impacted civilians:

  1. 2006 Lebanon War: During the 2006 conflict between israel and Hezbollah, israel used cluster munitions in southern Lebanon. The conflict resulted in significant civilian casualties and infrastructure damage on both sides.
  2. Indiscriminate Nature: Cluster munitions have an indiscriminate nature, meaning they cannot distinguish between military targets and civilian areas. When used in populated areas, they pose a grave risk to civilians, as unexploded submunitions can remain active long after the conflict ends, essentially becoming de facto landmines.
  3. Civilian Casualties: The use of cluster munitions by israel in Lebanon led to civilian casualties. Civilians, including children, were killed or injured by the initial explosions of cluster munitions, and many more were harmed by unexploded submunitions left behind after the cessation of hostilities.
  4. Infrastructure Damage: Cluster munitions not only cause casualties among civilians but also result in extensive damage to infrastructure such as homes, schools, hospitals, and agricultural land. This damage can have long-lasting effects on the livelihoods and well-being of affected communities.
  5. Humanitarian Concerns: The use of cluster munitions in populated areas raises significant humanitarian concerns and can potentially constitute violations of international humanitarian law, mainly if used indiscriminately or recklessly.
  6. Unexploded Ordnance (UXO): Even after the cessation of hostilities, unexploded cluster submunitions continue to pose a threat to civilians, particularly children, who may be unaware of the danger they pose. Clearance of UXO is a challenging and time-consuming process that requires specialized expertise and resources.

Overall, israel’s use of cluster munitions in Lebanon during the 2006 conflict resulted in civilian casualties, infrastructure damage, and ongoing humanitarian concerns due to the presence of unexploded submunitions. This underscores the need for greater adherence to international humanitarian law and efforts to minimize the impact of conflicts on civilian populations.

White phosphorus munitions — Wikipedia

Incendiary Weapons

Incendiary weapons, which aim to set fire to objects or cause burn injuries to humans, come under the category of firearms. Their use is restricted by the general rules of IHL, which prohibit attacking non-combatants, treacherously killing or wounding, and causing superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering. Their use is also regulated by Protocol III of the 1980 Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW).

Instances of israel’s illegal use of incendiary weapons, specifically white phosphorus, against civilians have raised significant international concern, particularly in the context of escalating hostilities in regions like Lebanon and the Gaza Strip. Amnesty International geolocated video from an attack on Gaza City’s port on October 11, showing the use of white phosphorus in tandem with high explosive artillery shells.

Weapons of Mass Destruction

Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) include biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons. Since these weapons are indiscriminate by nature, their use is hard to reconcile with the principles of IHL. The use, production, and stockpiling of biological and chemical weapons are prohibited by specific international treaties. However, there is currently no comprehensive and universally accepted treaty banning the use of nuclear weapons.

The Issue of Enforcement

Enforcing international law regarding the possession and use of illegal weapons faces several challenges. One key issue is the lack of a universal enforcement mechanism, which can lead to impunity for violators. Additionally, powerful nations may evade accountability due to their political influence.

For instance, despite evidence, major powers like Russia have faced limited consequences for alleged breaches of international law in conflicts such as the annexation of Crimea. Moreover, verifying compliance with arms control treaties can be difficult, as seen with challenges in monitoring North Korea’s nuclear program. Lastly, conflicting national interests and interpretations of legality hinder cohesive global action, undermining efforts to uphold international norms.

historically, the United States has used its veto power in the United Nations Security Council to block resolutions critical of israel’s actions in the Gaza Strip. These resolutions often relate to allegations of human rights violations and the use of illegal weapons.

For instance, in May 2018, during heightened tensions following protests in Gaza, the United States vetoed a UN Security Council resolution that called for the protection of Palestinian civilians and an investigation into israeli military actions. This veto drew criticism from many nations and humanitarian organizations, who argued that it allowed israel to evade accountability for its actions in the Gaza Strip.

The most recent instance where the United States exercised its veto power in favor of israel, despite the majority of countries advocating for a ceasefire decision, occurred on February 20, 2024. During a United Nations Security Council vote on a resolution put forth by Algeria, which called for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza amid the ongoing conflict with Hamas, the United States vetoed the resolution. This action blocked the demand for an immediate ceasefire, marking the third time Washington had obstructed a resolution that sought an immediate end to the fighting. The conflict, which began on October 7, had resulted in more than 29,000 deaths in Gaza, according to Palestinian authorities, and displaced more than 80 percent of the population. The vetoed resolution had the support of 13 out of the 15-member council, with the United Kingdom abstaining.

The Way Forward

Addressing the challenges posed by the use of illegal weapons in warfare requires a multi-faceted approach. This includes strengthening international laws and treaties, improving enforcement mechanisms, increasing transparency and accountability, and promoting disarmament and non-proliferation.

Final thought process

While the international community has made significant strides in regulating the use of weapons in warfare, much work remains to be done. The increasing involvement of non-state actors and the development of new armaments pose significant challenges to enforcing these laws. Continued efforts are needed to strengthen these laws and ensure their enforcement to protect civilians and reduce the human suffering caused by warfare.

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