Taboo weapons, ‘non-conventional’ weapons, or weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) are all terms used to describe those weapons which, whether by international convention or norm, are considered illegal and out of bounds for use in conflict of any character today due to their destructive capabilities. The weapons that fall under these terms are biological, chemical and nuclear weapons. All are subject to international conventions or treaties. The creation, proliferation and use of biological and chemical weapons is illegal under the Biological Weapons Convention and the Chemical Weapons Convention, both of which entered into force in 1975 (the use of chemical weapons in war has however been prohibited since the 1925 Geneva Protocol). Nuclear weapons are not illegal per se. Under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, those States party to the treaty agree not to acquire nuclear weapons and are obligated to pursue disarmament if they have a nuclear weapons stockpile, but a State may derogate or withdraw from the Treaty with little or no consequences for doing so. There is currently no international legal document which expressly states that the use of nuclear weapons is illegal.
However, the term ‘weapons of mass destruction’ is a misleading one. Categorising these diverse weapons under one moniker leads people to believe that all are equally destructive and of great cause for concern, when in reality there is a massive variance in the destructive potential of the kinds of weapon the term describes. Chemical weapons can hardly be described as causing massive destruction; whilst the effects of chemical weapons can certainly spread quickly and widely, they cannot be compared to nuclear weapons or even biological weapons in terms of destructive capability. Recovery from an attack by chemical weapon is often possible, and in a conflict situation in which the chemical attack was against well-protected soldiers, it wouldn’t be particularly effective- chemical weapons ‘are less deadly on average’ than a conventional explosive.
Biological weapons are much more dangerous than chemical weapons, but still not deserving of being termed a WMD. Despite this, in recent years bioweapons have become the WMD du jour. Statements such as the that saying that bioweapons could be created with ‘lamentable ease’ and a report from the US Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism stating that a biological attack by terrorists is likely to happen ‘somewhere in the world’ by 2013, caused bioweapons to become the new big threat to worry about. A convincing as many of these arguments may be, they are ultimately misleading: the threat from biological weapons has been greatly exaggerated. It may be easier for a terrorist group to make a bioweapon relative to the ease with which they could develop a nuclear weapon, but successfully creating a bioweapon that could cause mass casualties requires at the very least a high level of expertise and sophisticated equipment to an extent that terrorist groups do not currently possess. The rapid spread of sometimes fatal diseases is not at all desirable, but to class bioweapons in the same category as nuclear weapons is ridiculous – a biological weapon will not decimate the infrastructure of a city or country, or cause the same massive level of human casualties in the way that a nuclear weapon would.
Nuclear weapons, on the other hand, can and have been used to devastating effect. They are the only category of weapon truly deserving of the term ‘weapon of mass destruction’. The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 resulted in the deaths of an estimated 210,000 people and obliterated both cities, in each case with the use of a single bomb.
Nuclear weapons are not feared simply because of the level of destruction they can cause – conventional weapons, such as incendiary bombs, can be just as destructive – but rather the efficacy and efficiency with which they can cause this destruction. Yet at one point it was believed they could be ‘conventionalised’ and accepted for battlefield use alongside regular bombs. They are not unused merely because of mutual deterrence, but also because of the socially constructed taboo surrounding them; since the 1950s, a social norm has arisen that has made it almost unthinkable that a nuclear bomb could be used in any situation, apart from in cases where the very survival of a state was at stake.
The problem here is that there are those who argue that this norm is very much a Western social construct that is not held by all states and actors in the international system. Instead it is seen as a way for the nuclear ‘haves’ to dictate to the nuclear ‘have-nots’- Western states are afraid that their superiority will be threatened by other states who could develop a bomb and be willing to use it. Currently, one of the issues generating the most concern in nuclear terms is that a terrorist group or other non-state actor could obtain nuclear materials and successfully create a nuclear weapon. Unlikely as this is – as non-state actors would find it exceedingly difficult to ever have the capability required – if one day it happens, we will have to rethink this taboo. Terrorists are not averse to killing the maximum number of civilians possible and are unlikely to care much for international norms banning a weapon that could be their most effective yet.