Make us your home page
Instagram

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

PolitiFact.com | Tampa Bay Times
Sorting out the truth in politics

PolitiFact: World powers reached some agreement against chemical weapons 100 years ago

As President Barack Obama appeals to Congress to authorize a limited military strike against Syria, he has focused on intelligence that the country killed its citizens in a chemical attack.

Yet far more Syrians have died in the nation's 2-year-old civil war in other ways. What's the difference?

U.S. officials and lawmakers explain that there's long-standing international agreement that chemical warfare simply isn't okay.

Democratic National Committee chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz on Monday described a "100-year-old international norm not to use chemical weapons."

Have the world's nations opposed such weapons since the early 1900s?

A hundred years ago, the world had yet to face the horrors of World War I, when nearly 100,000 people were killed by grenades and artillery shells loaded with chemicals like chlorine and mustard gas. Nor had they experienced the million casualties that followed from chemical attacks worldwide.

Yet, it turns out, some international agreement against gas attacks predated the war — and even full development of the weapons themselves.

Wasserman Schultz's office sent us a declaration from world powers at an International Peace Conference at The Hague — dated 1899. It banned projectiles designed to spread "asphyxiating or deleterious gases."

It was binding only among signing countries in the case of a war between two of them, and didn't apply if a non-signing country jumped into the battle. It was worded as a limited agreement, not a moral condemnation. It came before general use of the weapons themselves.

It was signed by more than two dozen countries, and ratified by all the major powers — except the United States.

The American representative to the conference didn't agree to the declaration partly because he thought gas warfare, which had not yet been fully developed, was just as humane as other warfare, according to instructions to the American delegates and their official reports.

But the Hague Declaration marked the start of international consensus on the topic, says Richard Price, a political scientist at the University of British Columbia who wrote a book called The Chemical Weapons Taboo.

"I think it's fair to say 'international norm' at that point," Price told PolitiFact.

World War I was the first major test. Nations flunked.

Fierce debate broke out over the reach of the ban, Price said, which restricted only projectiles, not all chemical warfare. Countries pointed fingers as thousands died in brutal chemical attacks in which victims choked and burned.

Peace treaties, then the 1925 Geneva Conference, went much further than the Hague Declaration. World leaders in Geneva noted that "the use in war of asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases, and of all analogous liquids, materials or devices, has been justly condemned by the general opinion of the civilized world."

They wrote that prohibition of such weapons would be "universally accepted as part of international law" and appealed to the "conscience" of nations.

The Geneva Protocol has since been ratified by 137 states, according to a white paper from the White House Office of Legislative Affairs provided by Wasserman Schultz's office.

But the United States, which pushed for the Geneva Protocol, didn't ratify it until 1975.

Since then, chemical attacks have been rare, with just a few notable exceptions — such as Iraq's use of them in the 1980s against Iran. Those attacks, it turned out, took place with American support.

Syria, by the way, was among countries in agreement against chemical weapons, ratifying the Geneva Protocol in 1968.

But Syria has been less cooperative since then, as one of the only holdouts to 1992's Chemical Weapons Convention. (The United States ratified that one.) That agreement to entirely eliminate chemical weapons "for the sake of all mankind" includes 189 nations that represent about 98 percent of the world's population, according to the United Nations.

It may not be binding law for Syria, but it certainly represents an international norm, Price says.

World powers did reach some international agreement against chemical weapons more than 100 years ago, though the context requires some clarification. We rate Wasserman Schultz's claim Mostly True.

Edited for print. Read the full version at PolitiFact.com.

The statement

Says there's a "100-year-old international norm not to use chemical weapons."

U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, Monday in a CNN interview

The ruling

Politifact ruling: Mostly true
The Hague Declaration of 1899 took up the use of chemical weapons, but disagreement about whether their use was humane led the American representative to hold out. Even broader international condemnation came with the Geneva Protocol in 1925, but there weren't votes in the U.S. Senate to ratify that agreement until the 1970s. Now most of the world agrees such weapons ought to be eliminated entirely. But it was a long slog to get there. We rate the claim Mostly True.

PolitiFact: World powers reached some agreement against chemical weapons 100 years ago 09/05/13 [Last modified: Thursday, September 5, 2013 11:38pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. Trump reveals that he didn't record Comey after all

    Politics

    WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump declared Thursday he never made and doesn't have recordings of his private conversations with ousted former FBI director James Comey, ending a monthlong guessing game that he started with a cryptic tweet and that ensnared his administration in yet more controversy.

    President Donald Trump said Thursday that he didn’t record his conversations with James Comey.
  2. Lightning fans, don't get attached to your first-round draft picks

    Lightning Strikes

    CHICAGO — When Lightning GM Steve Yzerman announces his first-round pick tonight in the amateur draft at No. 14, he'll invite the prospect onto the stage for the once-in-a-lifetime photo opportunity.

    Tampa Bay Lightning left wing Jonathan Drouin (27) eludes  Montreal Canadiens left wing Phillip Danault (24) during the second period of Wednesday???‚??„?s (12/28/16) game between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Montreal Canadiens at the Amalie Arena in Tampa.
  3. Investigation Discovery TV show profiles 2011 Landy Martinez murder case

    Crime

    The murder of a St. Petersburg man will be featured this week on a new true crime series Murder Calls on Investigation Discovery.

    Jose Adame sits in a Pinellas County courtroom during his 2016 trial and conviction for first-degree murder. Adame was convicted of first-degree murder last year for torturing and then executing his boyfriend as he pleaded for his life in 2011. Now it will be featured in a new true crime series Murder Calls on Investigation Discovery. The episode will air on June 26 at 9 p.m. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD   |   Times]
  4. Uhuru mayoral candidate Jesse Nevel protests exclusion from debate

    Blogs

    ST. PETERSBURG — Jesse Nevel, the International People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement candidate for mayor, on Thursday demanded that he be allowed to participate in a July 25 televised debate between incumbent Mayor Rick Kriseman and challenger Rick Baker.

    Mayoral candidate Jesse Nevel holds a news conference outside the headquarters of the Tampa Bay Times on Thursday to protest his exclusion from the mayoral debate. Nevel is a member of the International People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement.
  5. Lightning GM Steve Yzerman also has top-9 wing on his wish list

    Lightning Strikes

    CHICAGO — Much has been made about the Lightning's interest in bolstering its blue line, even after last week's acquisition of defense prospect Mikhail Sergachev.

    Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman gestures as he speaks to the media about recent trades during a news conference before an NHL hockey game against the Carolina Hurricanes Wednesday, March 1, 2017, in Tampa, Fla. The Lightning, over the past few days, have traded goaltender Ben Bishop to the Los Angeles Kings, forward Brian Boyle to the Toronto Maple Leafs, and forward Valtteri Filppula to the Philadelphia Flyers. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara) TPA101