Wednesday, 18 September 2013

The Chemical Weapons Taboo

In response to the recent horrifying gas attack in a Damascus suburb, The Atlantic recently ran an article entitled ‘Why Chemical Weapons are Different'.  While I found the article interesting, I didn’t feel like it really fully explained why the use of chemical weapons is so taboo. So I thought I would look into this issue in a bit more detail.

The Hague Conference of 1899 was the first time that it was established that chemical weapons were fundamentally different from other weapons. At the time, most technology was seen as a value-neutral phenomenon with their moral value attributed depending on their use. You see this today with debates on gun control: it’s not guns that kill people; it’s the individuals that wield them. However, at this conference chemical weapons were not treated as value-neutral but were absolutely prohibited, irrespective of who was using them or how they were to be used.

Price and Tennenwald, in their fascinating book Norms and Deterrence, point out that the opprobrium attached to chemical weapons “does not follow purely ‘rationally’ or logically from the nature of the technology”. Chemical weapons are perceived as intrinsically brutal because they cause unnecessary suffering rather than just death. They are also seen as insidious and underhanded due to their invisibility (this is a point touched on by The Atlantic article). This is a peculiar perception considering the brutality of other weapons that far exceeds that of chemical weapons. High-speed bullets are no more visible than gas, which undermines the characterisation of chemical weapons as particularly stealthy. Similarly, it is hard to see how tearing flesh apart with explosives can be more humane than the use of chemical weapons. While the devastating nature of nuclear weapons is largely undisputed, the unique destructiveness of chemical weapons is far more open to debate.

Chemical weapons have earned their reputation as especially destructive largely as a result of political machinations. In the US and Britain, a massive campaign exaggerated the effects of chemical weapons to guarantee beneficial chemical tariffs and the continuation of chemical warfare departments. If it could be shown that chemical weapons were military game-changers, chemical warfare departments could justify their existence and their continued funding. Thus an image of chemical weapons was fabricated out of proportion to the actual danger they represented at the time. This depiction of danger obviously backfired and instead of leading to the increased importance of chemical warfare departments, it led to their eventual dismantling. 

A key reason for the characterisation of chemical weapons as taboo is the link between chemical weapons and nuclear weapons. Chemical weapons have been termed the ‘poor man’s bomb’, implying that they are a cheaper alternative to nuclear weapons. Even though chemical weapons are significantly less destructive than nuclear weapons, the former have still become linked with the latter under the term ‘weapons of mass destruction’. This link to nuclear weapons has helped keep chemical weapons as separate from conventional weapons even though their destructive capability is probably more comparable to conventional than nuclear weapons.

But I think an oft ignored factor for chemical weapons’ taboo status is the relationship between weapons and societies. The Western liberal powers like to think of themselves as technologically developed, ideologically enlightened and generally ‘civilised’ nations. Nuclear and chemical weapons are not avoided because they are particularly destructive but because their destruction has been decided to be contrary to a country’s identity as developed and enlightened. The Hague Declaration was the first of numerous treaties and protocols that sought to define ‘decent’ warfare and, by excluding non-contracting nations, linked the control of military affairs with a categorical affiliation of ‘civilised’. The London Protocol of 1936, limiting the use of submarines against merchant vessels, and the various Geneva Conventions, particularly the 1949 Convention on the treatment of Non-Combatants, further contributed to the creation of a ‘civilised’ category which was linked to the regulation of warfare. Once a state has associated itself with the categorical identity of ‘civilised’, i.e. a country that regulates its warfare, then nuclear and chemical weapons become taboo. Whether weapons can be considered taboo will vary depending on each state’s categorical identity affiliations.

I'm not trying to suggest that chemical weapons aren't horrific or that the 21 August chemical weapons attack on a Damascus suburb is anything other than an atrocious crime. I'm certainly not trying to downplay the horror of a chemical weapons attack. But you can die a slow and painful death at the wrong end of a number of weapons and yet we don't fear these other weapons in the same way as we do chemical weapons. If those hundreds of people had been killed by bullets or explosives rather than gas, it would be equally as horrific and equally a crime.  


There are some great books on chemical weapons and taboo weapons in general so if you're interested, check out the following:

  • Desch M C (1998) 'Culture Clash: Assessing the Importance of Ideas in Security Studies', International Security, Vol 23/1
  • Haldane J (1987) 'A Genealogy of the Chemical Weapons Taboo', International Organisation, Vol 49/1
  • Price R and Tannenwald N (1996) 'Norms and Deterrence: the Nuclear and Chemical Weapons Taboos' in The Culture of National Security: Norms and Identity in World Politics, ed. Katzenstein P J
  • Tannenwald N (2005) 'Stigmatising the Bomb: Origins of the Nuclear Taboo', International Organisation, Vol 49/1
  • Van Crevald M (1989) Technology and War

1 comment:

  1. The use of chemical weapons against combat troops is differrent from other types of weapon, bullets, etc., as there is virtually no way of preventing the chemicals affecting non-combatants. Their indiscriminate, uncontrollable impact sets them apart from conventional weapons providing a real difference in their destructiveness compared to conventional armaments.