The Need to Re-Visit Protocol III on Incendiary Weapons
November 22, 2010
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The horrors of napalm and other incendiary weapons impelled the negotiation of the third protocol to the Convention on Conventional Weapons (the CCW). Drafters of the protocol reacted to the death, disfigurement, and severe and painful injuries that incendiary weapons inflicted on civilians during the Vietnam War and other armed conflicts. The purpose of the protocol was to protect civilian lives by restricting the circumstances in which such weapons could be used.

Protocol III has failed to live up to its promise of protecting civilians from the effects of incendiary weapons. The protocol entered into force on December 2, 1983, and nearly three decades of state practice have shown it to be inadequate in a number of respects. The protocol’s definition of incendiary weapons as those “primarily designed” to set fire to objects or cause burn injuries to persons is too narrow, allowing multi-purpose and widely used incendiary munitions such as white phosphorus to escape regulation. The restrictions themselves are insufficiently rigorous, with exceptions that too often permit the use of incendiary weapons in ways that could be dangerous to civilians. Moreover, continued use of incendiary weapons by states parties and states not party reflects the failure of Protocol III to generate stigma against such weapons. These problems are exacerbated by the United States’ reservation to Protocol III, which undermines the normative force of the existing rules. Human Rights Watch, therefore, calls on states parties to the Convention on Conventional Weapons to review and reevaluate the adequacy of Protocol III from a humanitarian perspective.

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