Prejudicial Weapons

Brass Tacks

RECENT WARS in the Middle East and Vietnam have further revealed the inadequacies of international conventions regarding the possession and use of weapons.

Since the mid-19th Century, the guiding principle has been that parties to an armed conflict can only attack military targets. In a guerilla war there is little difference between military and political targets. International regulations are of minimal use in protecting civilians and their property. In Vietnam, both sides consistently committed violations: the North Vietnamese did not dress their guerillas in distinguishing uniforms--to do so would have been a contradiction in terms; the Americans created anti-personnel weapons which caused extensive and unnecessary harm to civilians and soldiers--their rationale was that such weapons were necessary to combat "people's" war.

The Middle East war has again demonstrated the willingness of belligerents to use illegal weapons or illegal applications of weapons when expedient. The Syrians fired a large number of rockets at civilian settlements in the Galilee area of Israel. Israel responded with air attacks using anti-personnel fragmentation bombs against Damascus. The Israelis had taken the precaution of building underground shelters. The Syrians suffered extensive civilian casualties because they did not.

The Israelis and the Syrians both paid a price for their violations of the international conventions. In the future, there will continue to be the temptation to commit violations. With increasing armament sophistication, sentiment may arise for more thorough international controls. A recent report by the International Red Cross anticipates public outcry against "Weapons that May Cause Unnecessary Suffering or Have Indiscriminate Effects" (available for Swiss Francs from 7 Ave, de la Paix, Ch-1211 Geneva). The report discusses the historical and legal background, the military uses and the medical effects of weapons including small-calibre projectiles, blast and fragmentation weapons, time-delay weapons, incendiary weapons and weapons which could be developed in the near future.

PARTICULAR ATTENTION is paid to the M-16 light assault rifle employed by the United States in Vietnam which uses smaller calibre ammunition fired at greater velocity than older rifles. The higher velocity of ammunition fired by the M-16 results in a significantly higher transfer of energy to human tissue on impact. Since the jacket covering the M-16 ammunition is extremely thin, it will "tumble," or break up, on body impact. The bullet creates a temporary cavity from which it slings tissues radially at high velocity, creating a strong shock wave in surrounding tissue with the result that distant blood vessels, nerves and bones may be unnecessarily injured.


When the bullet first strikes, it creates suction that draws bacteria from surrounding skin into the wound and the shape of the wound provides impetus for infection. The only way to deal with a high velocity wound is to remove damaged tissue by surgery. Anti-biotic treatment is not sufficient.

The effect of high velocity ammunition fired by the M-16 rifle is similar to that of the "dum-dum bullet" banned by the Hague Declaration of 1899. The Declaration forbade use of "bullets which expand or flatten easily in the human body."

The potential for indiscriminate and excessive destruction has increased in other weapons as well. In the case of fragmentation bombs, the newer devices create vastly smaller fragments which travel at higher speeds. As a result, there are multiple injuries and a greater possibility that civilians will be affected.

The report calls for examination of incendiary bombs which disproportionately affect civilian populations. In the case of time-delay weapons such as land mines, international regulation may help to limit the destructive power of the devices to the minimum needed to incapacitate.

Sooner or later the world's governments will overcome their inertia and examine the International Red Cross's and other nations' reports on weapons. In the meantime, the possession of weapons--particularly nuclear weapons--is more likely to attract international attention.

RECENT PRESS REPORTS have speculated that the Soviets have stationed nuclear weapons in Egypt. Egypt signed the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), whereas Israel did not. It is generally thought that Israel could finish assembly of an atomic bomb at moment's notice. Israel has feared that to sign the NPT would make it unduly dependent on the United States.

There has been no verification that Soviet nuclear weapons are in Egypt, but that does not mean that the Soviets do not have a rationale for putting them there. Shortly before the signing of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Security Council of the United Nations passed Resolution 255 (June 19, 1968) which obliges the Soviets, the United States and Britain to provide immediate assistance or support in accordance with the United Nations Charter to any non-nuclear weapon treaty country that is victim of nuclear aggression or the threat of such aggression.

It is of particular importance to consider what the Soviets mean by the threat of aggression. A July 1972 report by the United Nations Association of the U.S.S.R. points out that the Non-Proliferation Treaty:

in itself does not isolate and cannot isolate its participants from the outer world. Therefore the degree of assurance in the guarantees for security should be regarded in the general context of the international situation. It is obvious that the aggravation of international tension, the growing danger of a nuclear war and aggressive actions will constitute threats for international security.

The United Nations Association report also comments that Resolution 255 "confirms the inalienable right of all states to individual or collective self-defense if they are attacked, until the Security Council takes the necessary measures." The report said that the adherence of Israel to the Non-Proliferation Treaty should be sought "first and foremost."

SINCE THE SOVIETS link the existence of hotbeds of war in various areas to the threat, or implied threat, of nuclear aggression, they consider themselves justified to take such measures as they deem necessary until the Security Council has taken measures to correct the situation. This may in part explain why the Soviets responded so firmly in October after the breakdown of the initial ceasefire in the Middle East imposed by the Security Council.

It is apparent that the Non-Proliferation Treaty and other international treaties on the possession and use of weapons have serious flaws, but experience has shown that no one benefits in the long run by flouting them or by refusing to become party to them. In the era that we are now entering, it will become imperative to improve and to create more adequate treaties. Destructive technologies will no longer be in the possession of a privileged few, whose behavior scarcely has merited their special status. In this sense, organizations such as the International Red Cross and the United Nations Association of the United States which seek to improve upon the content or the observance of treaties related to weapons are on the right track.