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Incendiary Weapons Draw Widespread Condemnation

Russia, US Block Opening Up Discussions on Restrictions

Delegates to the Convention on Conventional Weapons Meeting of High Contracting Parties deliberate the contents of the final report of the meeting on November 15, 2019.  © Alev Erhan, 2019

Incendiary weapons drew widespread condemnation at last week’s annual meeting of the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW), but interventions by Russia and the United States will keep the issue off the agenda next year.

Almost all states parties that spoke on the topic condemned recent use in Syria and pushed for further multilateral discussions. But Russia and the US insisted that existing international law is adequate and blocked proposals to set aside time in 2020 to discuss CCW Protocol III, which governs the weapons. Since CCW meetings operate by consensus, opposition from the two countries was enough to keep Protocol III off next year’s agenda.

Despite that setback, the majority of states concerned about the cruel effects of incendiary weapons succeeded in joining forces and refusing to let major military powers sweep a matter of humanitarian concern under the rug. The meeting’s final report reflected these states’ widespread concern and calls to reinstate the agenda item.

Incendiary weapons, which produce heat and fire through the chemical reaction of a flammable substance, can inflict severe burns, leave extensive scarring, and cause respiratory damage and psychological trauma.  

While Protocol III imposes restrictions on the use of incendiary weapons, its definition of the weapons excludes multipurpose munitions, like white phosphorus, that have incendiary effects but are primarily designed for other purposes. The protocol also has weaker regulations for ground-launched incendiary weapons than air-dropped ones.

At least 14 of the 17 states parties that spoke about incendiary weapons condemned or expressed concern about recent use. At least 12 called for dedicated CCW discussions to assess and/or strengthen of Protocol III. The European Union, which represented 28 member states and three others, also condemned the use of incendiary weapons on civilians or in civilian areas and requested that Protocol III be put back on the agenda.

Over the coming year, countries should continue to condemn the use of incendiary weapons and renew their push for dedicated time to discuss Protocol III. In the long run, they should prepare to revisit the protocol at the CCW’s 2021 Review Conference, with an eye to increasing its impact by closing its loopholes.

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