Laws & Policies

fed labs blue book training c1960s

adapted from Facing Tear Gas

Chemical Weapons in War

The struggle to eradicate the use of chemical weapons in international warfare has spanned centuries. International agreements to prohibit the use of chemical weapons have shaped the “rules of warfare” that are still in practice today. These efforts were escalated after the horrors of large-scale chemical warfare seen during World War I, culminating in the creation of the 1925 Geneva Protocol. The Protocol is now a binding part of International Law for signatory States, preventing the use in war of any asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases, and of bacteriological methods of warfare.

The US’s Exception 

Until the Presidency of Richard Nixon, the United States maintained an interpretation of the Protocol that excluded the use of tear gas and herbicides, which were essential elements to the US’s military strategy during the Vietnam War. These actions caught the attention of international activists and politicians who denounced the use of tear gas and herbicides as a violation of the Protocol and called for recognition by the United States that the Protocol covered the use of ALL chemical and biological weapons. A resolution to the Protocol condemning their use was adopted on December 16, 1969, by a vote of 80-3; the 3 oppositions being Australia, Portugal, and the United States. In 1974, the Ford Administration launched an initiative to obtain Senate consent to ratify the Protocol, denouncing the first use of riot-control agents (including tear gas and pepper spray) and herbicides in war. The Protocol and the Geneva Convention were ratified by President Ford on January 22, 1975.

The Chemical Weapons Convention

With this increase in international attention towards the use of chemical weapons, the 1978 Geneva Conference structured its agenda around the issue. Specifically, a US-Soviet working group set the stage for the formulation of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC)—highlighting the need to establish a conference or committee of all states parties to oversee implementation. A draft text was opened for signature on January 13, 1993, with 130 signatory states within the first two days. The signatories further approved a resolution to set up what would later become the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which is responsible for the regulation, implementation, and verification of the CWC. In April of 1997, the CWC entered into force with 87 States Parties – becoming binding international law prohibiting the development, production, stockpiling, and use of chemical weapons.

The latest exception: “Riot Control Agents”

Riot control agents including tear gas and pepper spray are banned in international warfare under both the 1925 Geneva Protocol and the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). The CWC defines chemical weapons as “munitions and devices that are designed to cause death or other harm through toxic chemicals” that lead to “death, temporary incapacitation or permanent harm to humans or animals.”  While tear gas and pepper spray, under international law, are banned as a “method of warfare”, there are no restrictions to their domestic use as a “riot control agent.” According to the CWC, “riot control agents” are any chemicals which are not specifically listed in their list of prohibited chemicals and that can cause in humans rapid “sensory irritation or disabling physical effects which disappear within a short time following termination of exposure.”  Under Article II Section 9 of the CWC, the use of such chemicals for “law enforcement including domestic riot control purposes” is not prohibited under the Convention.

Find Out More

Harvard-Sussex Program on Chemical and Biological Weapons Databases

International Committee of the Red Cross on Law and War: Chemical and Biological Weapons