Bonnie Docherty Delivers Statement at Meeting of States Parties to the Convention on Conventional Weapons in Geneva
November 25, 2010

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

The purpose of Protocol III is to protect civilians from the effects of incendiary weapons, but it cannot, as written, achieve that goal. As outlined in a paper distributed by Human Rights Watch this week, legal loopholes allow certain incendiary munitions and certain types of use to fall through the cracks. It is time for states parties to amend Protocol III and eliminate the flaws that undermine its humanitarian objective.

Recent use of white phosphorus munitions in Gaza and Fallujah is a reminder of the horrific injuries that incendiary munitions can cause.  On exposure to air, white phosphorus combusts at more than 800 degrees Celsius. The chemical can burn through skin and dissolves easily in human flesh. Wounds contaminated with white phosphorus can reignite once victims' bandages are removed.

Two key problems with Protocol III leave open the possibility that it would not cover such use of incendiary munitions. First, the protocol's definition of "incendiary weapon" is based on whether a munition is "primarily designed" to burn people and start fires and excludes munitions designed for smoke-screening, illuminating, or marking targets.

Some states argue that incendiary munitions, notably white phosphorous ones, fall outside this definition because they are dual use.  Regardless of whether the munitions are designed primarily as weapons or as smoke screens, they should be encompassed by any instrument that seeks to protect civilians from the effects of incendiary munitions. 

Second, Protocol III's regulations of surface-launched incendiary weapons are weaker than those of air-dropped models. But surface-launched incendiary munitions also have indiscriminate effects.  Artillery shells, for example, can disperse white phosphorous over an area with a 125 meter radius. In order to avoid the humanitarian costs associated with these weapons, states parties should strengthen the restrictions on surface-launched incendiary weapons, especially within civilian areas.

Mr. Chairman, these inadequacies should be addressed as part of a thorough review of the general status and operation of Protocol III. States parties have not revisited the protocol in thirty years, and the Fourth Review Conference offers an ideal opportunity for them to do so. Human Rights Watch calls on the review conference to adopt a mandate to amend Protocol III, with the goal of addressing the protocol's present inadequacies by the end of 2012.

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