(Geneva) – Syria should immediately stop using incendiary weapons, Human Rights Watch said today in a report which documents at least 56 attacks using the weapons since November 2012. Human Rights Watch will present its concerns at the annual meeting of the Convention on Conventional Weapons in Geneva this week.
The 20-page memorandum on Syria’s use of incendiary weapons is based on field research and other documentation. It includes a video and a map of the attack sites. Incendiary weapons produce heat and fire through the chemical reaction of a flammable substance. These weapons cause extremely painful burns that are difficult to treat, and also start fires that destroy objects and infrastructure.
“Syria has used incendiary weapons to inflict terrible harm on civilians, including many children,” said Bonnie Docherty, senior arms researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Yet where is the international outcry? Other countries should condemn Syria’s use of incendiary weapons just as they have its use of chemical weapons and cluster bombs.”
All governments should call on Syria to immediately cease its use of incendiary weapons, and should work to strengthen international law to eliminate or minimize their use, Human Rights Watch said.
Field investigations, witness accounts, and videos and photos reviewed by Human Rights Watch indicate that the Syrian Air Force carried out at least 56 incendiary weapons attacks from November 2012 through September 2013. Human Rights Watch and the Violations Documentation Center of Syria have documented in detail four separate incendiary weapons attacks that resulted in the deaths of at least 41 civilians and wounded 71 others. Two of the attacks were on two schools in residential neighborhoods.
Dr. Saleyha Ahsan, a British emergency medicine doctor, was volunteering in a hospital in Aleppo governorate on August 26, 2013, when dozens of victims began arriving from an incendiary weapons attack on a school filled with teenagers studying for exams. She told Human Rights Watch: “One patient with 90 percent third-degree burns arrived alive at the hospital. The clothes had been burned off him. It was the most horrific injury I have ever seen in a live patient. Only his eyes moved.”
The victim was about to be evacuated to Turkey for specialized treatment when he died of his wounds.
Syria is not party to the 1980 Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) or its Protocol III banning the use of air-delivered incendiary weapons in areas with “concentrations of civilians.” As of October 25, a total of 107 countries – including all five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council – were party to the protocol.
“The existing international law restricting the use of incendiary weapons could be strengthened in many ways,” Docherty said. “But Syria's egregious incendiary attacks show that a global ban would be the best solution.”
Syria’s airstrikes using incendiary weapons in or near civilian population centers violate international humanitarian law, or the laws of war, because they are inherently indiscriminate, Human Rights Watch said. Deliberate or reckless indiscriminate attacks are war crimes.
Most of the video evidence and witness accounts Human Right Watch collected indicate that fixed-wing jet aircraft and helicopters operated by the Syrian Air Force are being used to deliver incendiary weapons. Human Rights Watch identified at least three types of air-dropped incendiary weapons used by Syrian government forces, all incendiary aircraft bombs manufactured by the Soviet Union.
No information is available on how or when Syria acquired the incendiary weapons, or on the size of its stockpile of incendiary weapons.
Docherty and other representatives from Human Rights Watch will speak about Syria’s use of incendiary weapons at a briefing in Room XXIV at the United Nations in Geneva at 1:15 p.m. on November 12.