30 Apr
  • By Brian Cassidy

Chemical Weapons and International Law

The last month has seen allegations of new outrages in the Syrian Civil War broadcast across the media, specifically the chemical attacks on rebel groups in Douma on the 7th of April. Investigators from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) have visited the sites of the reported attacks, but have not published their results at this point. Russia and the Syrian government deny that there was a chemical attack, stating that the accusations are just another example of “fake news”. Whatever the end result turns out to be, the issue of chemical warfare is worth discussing, and leads us to look at International Humanitarian Law, or “IHL”.

Law and War don’t really seem like subjects that go hand in hand. Modern Law appears to be mostly focused on protection, societal stability, and order, while War seems to be a matter of destruction, societal upheaval and chaos. International Humanitarian Law, which is also sometimes referred to as the “the Laws of War” seeks to put legal structure onto the processes of modern war, in an effort to limit the damage that widespread conflict always causes. Most societies throughout history have made some attempt to say what is or isn’t allowed during combat, though their conclusions are a bit jarring to people in the modern world. Ancient Greece, for example, thought it perfectly acceptable for invading armies to slaughter a conquered cities’ civilians, so long as the cities’ leaders had been a offered a chance to surrender peacefully and refused. Torture, rape, and looting were all acceptable acts in this and other scenarios, yet mutilating the enemies’ dead would usually earn you the condemnation of all your peers.


Chemical warfare has been around in different forms for centuries, though most often in the form of poison, and came to international notice during World War One, with the use of the infamous “mustard gas” or “Sulphur Mustard”, still featuring prominently in media about the era. Following the widespread death and illness that the chemical attacks caused, a treaty prohibiting “the use in war of asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases, and of all analogous liquids, materials or devices” was drafted into force in 1928, termed the Geneva Protocol. This was added on to the Hague Conventions, a list of treaties intended to create an internationally accepted list of the laws of war and war crimes, written in 1899 and 1907. Later treaties were written to prohibit the production and storage of chemical weapons, the Biological Weapons Convention (1972) and the Chemical Weapons Convention (1993). One of the key points to note about these treaties is that they are recognised as customary international law, which means that every nation on earth, regardless of whether it signed the treaties or not, is understood to be subject to their stipulations.

Despite this, there have been times when chemical weapons have been used in warfare over the last century, and there are still numerous states which are suspected of producing and/or stockpiling them. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons was created to enforce the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), and to investigate the production, storage and use of chemical weapons in each member state. Despite enforcing customary international law, a state that did not sign or ratify the CWC has no obligation to allow the OPCW entry into their territory, so only member-states are subject to it. The only United Nations states that have not signed and acceded to the CWC by this point are South Sudan, North Korea, Egypt and Israel, the last of which has signed, but has not yet ratified the treaty. The OPCW issues deadlines for the gradual destruction of chemical weapons and chemical weapon production facilities to each of its member states, and most nations which have declared that they possess them are still in the process of destroying their stockpiles.


Chemical weapons are weapons of mass destruction, capable of killing high numbers of a population in very little time, and include everything from modern nerves agents like “Sarin” to the previously mentioned “Mustard Gas” of World War 1. The last few weeks has seen a renewal of interest in the subject, following the nerve agent incident in the UK, where Sergei Skirpal and his daughter Yulia were hospitalised following exposure to a nerve agent. The OPCW has confirmed that this, and supports the UK Government’s findings. Just a few weeks after this incident, Douma is alleged to have been bombed with chemical weapons, leaving hundreds hospitalised. As mentioned earlier, the OPCW has tested Douma for chemicals, but had not made any results public so far. Chemical weapons are clearly still an issue, and we can only hope that the international community recognises the gravity of the situation with a reaffirmation of their decision to step away from these indiscriminate armaments.


Syria ‘chemical’ attack: Experts finally visit Douma site

Inspectors Examine Site of Suspected Chemical Attack in Syria

Mustard Gas (Sulphur Mustard)

The Geneva Protocol at 90, Part 1: Discovery of the dual-use dilemma

The Laws of War

Convention On The Prohibition Of The Development, Production, Stockpiling And Use Of Chemical Weapons And On Their Destruction

Organization For The Prohibition Of Chemical Weapons (OPCW)

India destroys its chemical weapons stockpile

The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) at a Glance


Brian Cassidy holds a BA in World Religions and Theology, and an LLM in International Humanitarian Law, Peace Operations, and Conflict. He is dedicated to raising awareness about International Non-Governmental Organisations (INGOs) and the International Refugee Crisis, along with a few other topics, through writing and discussion.