The prohibition and restriction of conventional weapons

International humanitarian law prohibits or restricts the use of certain conventional weapons in order to lessen the impact of war on civilian populations.

Basic rules

Customary law contains certain basic rules, such as:

  • the prohibition of weapons that strike indiscriminately
  • the prohibition of weapons of a nature to cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering
  • the prohibition of arms that render death inevitable

The 1980 Convention and its five Protocols

The Convention on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Certain Conventional Weapons of 10 October 1980 (CCW) is crucially important. Further to the framework Convention, three supplemental Protocols prohibit or restrict the use of certain categories of weapon.

  • Protocol I on non-detectable fragments
  • Protocol II on mines, booby-traps and other devices
  • Protocol III on incendiary weapons

Devised to be a dynamic instrument, it has been possible to adapt the Convention to keep up with the rapid development of weapons technology and methods of warfare since 1980. Its scope has thus far been extended by three further protocols:

  • Protocol IV on blinding laser weapons (1995)
  • Amended Protocol II on mines, booby-traps and other devices (1996)
  • Protocol V on the explosive remnants of war (2003)

Further to the regulations on conduct in an armed conflict, the Convention also contains measures to be taken before the commencement of hostilities and after they cease. In 2001, the scope of the Convention was extended to cover all types of armed conflict. The Convention’s expanded field of application takes account of the shift in the nature of armed conflict in recent decades.

Switzerland has ratified the framework Convention and its five protocols. It is actively involved in the work of government experts examining the potential regulation of the use of weapons not yet specifically covered by the Convention.

Rules regarded as customary international law 

The use of any weapon during armed conflict is also restricted by the rules and general principles of international humanitarian law, which in particular, lists the measures which must be taken to minimise the impact of military operations on civilian populations and infrastructures. The principal rules of international humanitarian law that apply to the use of weapons are:

  • The obligation to distinguish between civilian objects and military objectives
  • The prohibition on indiscriminate attacks
  • The obligation to respect the principle of proportionality
  • The obligation to take precautions to minimise the consequences of an attack for the civilian population

These rules are a part of customary international law and therefore apply to all parties to a conflict, without distinction between governments and non-government armed groups and regardless of whether the state concerned has ratified a relevant international treaty.

Conventions on cluster munitions and anti-personnel mines

On 30 May 2008, both chambers of Switzerland’s parliament approved the ratification of the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which follows in spirit the Convention on Anti-Personnel Mines of 18 September 1997, and which Switzerland was one of the first countries to ratify on 24 March 1998. Given the serious humanitarian consequences of these weapons, both conventions stipulate a comprehensive ban on their use, development, production, financing, purchase, transfer and storage. Switzerland ratified the Convention on Cluster Munitions on 17 July 2012 and it came into force in Switzerland on 1 January 2013.