The 1925 Geneva Protocol goes digital

May 17 2012
VERTIC Blog >> National Implementation Measures

Angela Woodward, Christchurch

Historical documents pertaining to the 1925 Geneva Protocol are now available online through the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ treaty database. Scanned copies of original instruments of accession, ratification and succession, along with documents relating to reservations, are now a mouse-click away. It is important to have access to these original documents, rather than the potted, translated summaries of their contents that were previously available, to determine the precise legal status of the Protocol’s prohibitions on the use of biological and chemical weapons with respect to each State. Importantly, access to these documents has provided answers to a few questions that were percolating in the Geneva Protocol research community about certain States’ legal status, although some queries remain.  They also provide a fascinating snapshot into diplomatic protocol over ten decades.

The 1925 Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare, commonly known as the Geneva Protocol, is an often overlooked treaty, not least because of its age and the absence of regular treaty meetings. Yet its prohibitions on biological and chemical weapons use have become so widely accepted that they are now considered to be customary international law, binding on all States, whether they have joined the Protocol or not.
This ban was further endorsed by the treaties prohibiting the production, development and stockpiling of these weapons: implicitly, in the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) and explicitly in the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). All of which makes the continuing maintenance of reservations to the Geneva Protocol’s prohibitions by BWC and CWC States Parties all the more curious. Through these reservations, States purport to retain a right to retaliate in kind against CBW use and/or to use such weapons against States not party to the Geneva Protocol: weapons that BWC and CWC States Parties should not hold.
While there is little concern that such States are deliberately maintaining these reservations with a view to using these weapons (most have likely just forgotten about them), the legal disparity between their Geneva Protocol and BWC/CWC obligations remains troubling.
In a 2011 study for the BWC Seventh Review Conference, Sims, Pearson and Woodward considered that 19 BWC States Parties retained Geneva Protocol reservations which were contrary to their obligations under the BWC and, in some cases, the CWC. It has proved difficult to be precise in such determinations in the absence of the original instruments by which States adhered, or made reservations to, the Protocol, especially as some websites on the Protocol held conflicting data. France, as the Geneva Protocol’s depositary State, is responsible for maintaining treaty documents and notifying all States Parties as communications are received and so its information is authoritative. To its credit, the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs has comprehensively overhauled its extensive online treaty collection and, for the first time, made scanned copies of treaty-related documents publicly-available online.
No doubt researchers will review and amend their analyses of Geneva Protocol adherence and implementation in light of this newly available information. The text of at least two previously unavailable reservations are now available for scrutiny. Database users may also marvel at the florid diplomatic language of the 1920s, at King George V’s signature on the ratification instrument for the United Kingdom and its Dominions, and at China’s 1952 telegram confirming its succession to the Kuomintang regime’s adherence to the Protocol.  


Last changed: May 17 2012 at 2:16 PM