Weapons of mass destruction - A political term

The term weapons of mass destruction has a long and changing history. There is no generally recognized definition or one that is binding under international law. UN Security Council Resolution 1540 of 28 April 2004 gives one indirect definition that is widely used by policymakers and in society. It states that the "proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, as well as their means of delivery constitutes a threat to international peace and security" and that therefore all UN member states need to "fulfil their obligations in relation to arms control and disarmament and to prevent proliferation in all its aspects of all weapons of mass destruction". When looking from the angle of morals and ethics, the term weapons of mass destruction has a negative connotation and is understood differently by different political actors. This is elaborated on in the following.

In 1937, Cosmo Gordon Lang, the Arch Bishop of Canterbury, was the first to use the term ‘weapons of mass destruction’ after the bombing of the Spanish city of Guernica by the Legion Condor. This troop of the German Wehrmacht (armed forces) operated undercover and tested new conventional weapons and techniques of aerial warfare that had caused huge amounts of civilian casualties in the Spanish Civil War. After Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the end of World War II, the term appeared again in the first resolution of the General Assembly of the newly founded United Nations. There, it referred to "nuclear weapons and all other weapons adaptable to mass destruction". During the Cold War, the term became almost a synonym for nuclear weapons.

Its end brought the topic of weapons of mass destruction on the international agenda again; for two reasons. One the one hand, in the context of the second Gulf War 1990/91 it became apparent that Iraq under the leadership of Saddam Hussein had been able to make substantial—undetected— progress in constructing nuclear weapons and far-reaching delivery systems for chemical weapons despite the existing non-proliferation regime. The tools of the international community to prevent the proliferation of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons had proven to be too weak. On the other, the simultaneous collapse of the Soviet Union gave rise to significant concerns that the ABC-weapons or the materials and technologies for their construction could leak from the successor republics of the USSR into other countries.

The United States under the leadership of President Clinton reacted to these developments with a concept that contained a mix of small national disarmament steps, clear efforts on improved non-proliferation mechanisms and support to the successor states of the USSR in safeguarding their A-, B- and C heritage. As of 1993, the United States regularly used the term weapons of mass destruction as a collective and short term for all nuclear, biological and chemical weapons and their delivery systems and declared the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction as one of the major threats of the future. If necessary, this threat was to be countered by the use of force.

The term's meaning changed yet again after the terror attacks of 9/11 2001. The danger of non-state actors, such as terrorists, trying to get access to such weapons—a concept that had already been a topic of various discussions during the Clinton Administration—gained disproportional importance in the threat perception in the United States. It soon transpired, however, that the danger of terrorists gaining access to entire operational nuclear weapons and their means of delivery was a lot smaller and less realistic than the risk of such actors gaining access to toxic or biological substances or highly radioactive nuclear materials and using them for their purposes. In the context of the debate on national security and the terrorist threat to it, people increasingly warned against the danger of them using radiological dispersal devices—the 'dirty bomb', which is a mixture of conventional explosives and radioactive nuclear material. Some also include these devices in the definition of weapons of mass destruction. To use the collective term of weapons of mass destruction for nuclear, biological, chemical and radiological weapons, however, is problematic and questionable in many ways. There are major differences between the types of weapons with regard to their deadliness, their military usability, effectiveness and use.

This term best applies to nuclear weapons. They make no difference between armed fighters and innocent civilians. One weapon alone can kill a large number of people within a very short space of time—even across long distances. The obstacles to using nuclear weapons for mass destruction are mostly of a political or psychological, not technical, nature.

Chemical weapons, on the other hand, only kill a large number of people when they are used extensively and/ or when the victims are not able to wear protective clothing. They also only have the desired effect when the wind is blowing from the right direction. Chemical weapons are often not suitable to meet the military target of the mass destruction of human lives.

Radiological weapons can also hardly be called weapons of mass destruction. Their effect is limited to a small area. 'Dirty bombs' are not suitable for a targeted, extensive killing of people. Biological weapons, however, just like nuclear weapons, can kill a vast number of people with little weapon material. Still, there are substantial technical obstacles to using them effectively in the military context. On the one hand, there is the difficulty of spreading the substances. On the other, their efficient and rapid deployment over considerable distances is exceedingly difficult in technical terms as missiles, for instance, develop extremely high temperatures that would kill viruses or bacteria.

Finally, there are types of weapons that have killed far more people in the course of the wars and conflicts of the past than nuclear, chemical or biological weapons taken together, such as small arms and light weapons or land mines. The high number of victims of SALW has led to the fact that, because of their global availability and their destructive potential, in 2001, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan called them the 'real weapons of mass destruction of our time'.

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