As states party to the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) convene for their annual meeting in November 2014, the matter of incendiary weapons is reaching a crossroads. Ongoing use of these exceptionally cruel weapons highlights the urgent need to take steps to prevent the civilian suffering they cause. Meanwhile, growing concern about incendiary weapons presents an opportunity to strengthen the international law governing them. Human Rights Watch and Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC) call on all nations and especially CCW states to publicly condemn the use of incendiary weapons, express support for reviewing CCW Protocol III on incendiary weapons, and work toward developing stronger protections for civilians.

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This memorandum examines the devastating harm caused by incendiary weapons, including over the past year in Syria and Ukraine. It discusses how increased stigmatization of the use of these weapons has in some cases altered government behavior, a process exemplified by Israel’s apparent decision not to use them in Gaza in 2014. The memorandum also critiques CCW Protocol III and identifies ways that it could be strengthened. Finally, it analyzes recent government positions on incendiary weapons.

Recommendations to CCW States

CCW states should begin formal discussions of Protocol III as soon as possible in order to mitigate the harmful effects of incendiary weapons, including white phosphorus. To move toward that end, states should:

  • Condemn the use of incendiary weapons in their interventions at the November 2014 Meeting of States Parties.
  • Ensure the final report of the meeting reflects concerns about incendiary weapons, as it has done for the past three years.
  • Express support for efforts to commence formal discussions on Protocol III, with a view to strengthening it.

A comprehensive ban on the weapons would have the most far-reaching humanitarian benefits. At a minimum, CCW states should address the specific shortcomings of Protocol III by:

  • Adopting a broader, effects-based definition of incendiary weapons that encompasses multipurpose munitions with incendiary effects, such as those containing white phosphorus, and
  • Prohibiting the use of all incendiary weapons in civilian areas, regardless of whether they are air dropped or surface launched.