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Use of an incendiary weapon in Bdama, Idlib in July 2018. © 2018 Syria Civil Defense

(Geneva) – Russia should support, not block, diplomatic talks about possible action to address the civilian harm caused by the use of incendiary weapons, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. 

Issued ahead of an upcoming United Nations disarmament conference, the nine-page report, -“Standing Firm against Incendiary Weapons,” co-published by Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic, highlights the weaknesses of international law regulating incendiary weapons. Such weapons can inflict severe burns, leave extensive scarring, and cause respiratory damage and psychological trauma. Incendiary weapons also start fires that destroy civilian homes, objects, and infrastructure.

“Russia’s regrettable opposition scuttled stand-alone diplomatic discussion this year on incendiary weapons,” said Bonnie Docherty, senior arms researcher at Human Rights Watch and lead author of the report. “Yet there’s a clear humanitarian imperative to deal with these cruel weapons.”

Countries that are party to the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) are scheduled to consider incendiary weapons, killer robots, and other arms concerns at the United Nations in Geneva from November 13 to 15, 2019. At the last annual meeting of the CCW in November 2018, Russia blocked consensus on a widely supported proposal to continue dedicated discussions on incendiary weapons in 2019.

Over the past year, the Syrian-Russian military alliance has continued to use incendiary weapons in or near civilian areas in Syria. In May and June alone, incendiary weapons were used at least 27 times, mostly in Idlib governorate, but the total number is most likely higher. A May 25 incendiary weapon attack in the Khan Sheikhoun area of Idlib burned approximately 175,000 square meters of farmland, based on a Human Rights Watch analysis of satellite imagery. Syria has not joined CCW’s Protocol III, which governs incendiary weapons, but Russia has.

Since the conflict in Syria began in 2012, Human Rights Watch has documented about 150 incendiary weapon attacks by the Syrian-Russian military alliance using ground-launched rockets and air-delivered weapons. Human Rights Watch has used open-source material, satellite imagery analysis, and interviews to identify the attacks.

At the United Nations in October, Russia’s diplomatic representative said it regards Protocol III as “strong and efficient” enough to prevent civilian harm from incendiary weapons. Russia said it is open to considering “concrete proposals” for reviewing the protocol’s effectiveness, but told Human Rights Watch it regards any effort to review and reopen the protocol as “dangerous.”

CCW Protocol III imposes some restrictions on the use of incendiary weapons, but it fails to provide sufficient protections for civilians. The countries at the UN meeting should agree to restart the talks blocked by Russia last year and take steps to review the protocol more formally in 2020 with the intention of strengthening its protections for civilians. They should also articulate their policies and practices on incendiary weapons.

Protocol III’s definition of incendiary weapons, one of its major loopholes, excludes multipurpose weapons, such as those with white phosphorus. White phosphorus munitions may be primarily designed to provide smokescreens or illumination, but they can inflict the same horrific injuries as other incendiary weapons. Ten years ago, images of Israeli forces using US-made white phosphorus munitions in densely-populated Gaza, which caused civilian casualties and damaged a school, market, humanitarian aid warehouse, and other civilian infrastructure, generated international outrage. Israel and the United States are party to Protocol III.

White phosphorus is highly soluble in fat and therefore deeply burns human flesh. If fragments of white phosphorus enter the bloodstream, they can lead to multiple organ failure. Already-dressed wounds can reignite when dressings are removed and they are re-exposed to oxygen.

“White phosphorus should never be used as an incendiary weapon in populated areas due to the high risk of horrific and long-lasting injury to both civilians and combatants,” said Docherty, who is also associate director of armed conflict and civilian protection at the Harvard clinic. “Because it can burn to the bone, even relatively minor burns from white phosphorus are often fatal.”

Human Rights Watch is reviewing allegations that Turkey has used white phosphorus in recent weeks in its military offensive in northeast Syria. Some media outlets have erroneously described white phosphorus as a chemical weapon. Incendiary weapons produce heat and fire through the chemical reaction of a flammable substance, while chemical weapons inflict harm due to the toxicity of the chemicals they release.

Protocol III prohibits the use of air-dropped incendiary weapons in populated areas, but allows the use of ground-delivered models in certain circumstances. Because all incendiary weapons cause the same effects, this arbitrary and outdated distinction should be eliminated. A complete ban on incendiary weapons would have the greatest humanitarian benefits.

“Humanitarian concerns call for nations to make simple fixes to close the loopholes in existing law and further stigmatize any use of incendiary weapons,” Docherty said.

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