MIT Security Studies Program
The 1925 Geneva Protocol and International Reactions to the Use of Chemical and Biological Weapons in War
In a perfect world, international arms control treaties would end controversies. Some nations, though, refuse to become parties to important accords and disregard them. In other instances, states violate the very agreements they have signed. For the 1925 Geneva Protocol, which bans the wartime use of chemical and also biological weapons, legal institutions that redress treaty violations have been slow to emerge. Nationalist China’s attempt to bring charges against Imperial Japan for CBW attacks during the Second Sino-Japanese War offers an important example of international reactions that impede justice. In the first phase of this history, beginning in 1937, the Chinese officially presented complaints to the League of Nations about Japan’s battlefield use of chemical weapons (mostly mustard gas) against defenseless Chinese troops. In early 1941, China attempted to persuade the world that Japan had attacked four Chinese cities with plague, killing hundreds. Neither of these efforts brought about serious international recriminations for Japan. Although in 1946 China expected to revive both these accusations at the International Military Tribunal of the Far East (IMTFE), that expectation ended in secrecy’s being imposed on all case evidence. Analyses of the court’s legal erasure of both charges point to four main obstacles to fair adjudication: the difficulty of mediating claims in wartime, the ambiguity created by non-adherence, the selective categorization of civilian death tolls, and the intrusion of the dominant powers’ national security agendas into case selection. Since the IMTFE, the international framework for war crimes prosecution has greatly changed, but the question of international readiness to prosecute violations of the Geneva Protocol or related treaties remains open.