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Statement on Incendiary Weapons, UN General Assembly First Committee

Delivered by Bonnie Docherty, Senior Researcher

Thank you, Chairperson. 

As states have debated whether to hold formal discussions on incendiary weapons, victims have lived with the weapons’ cruel and long-term effects.

The immediate impacts of incendiary weapons, which burn people and set fires, are horrific. They burn through layers of flesh, cause respiratory damage, and produce shock and infection. But that is not the end of the suffering for those who survive.

Over time, contractures, which shorten and harden muscles, make it difficult and painful to bend joints. The loss of elastic skin impedes the growth of children. The trauma of the initial attack, ongoing pain, and disfiguring scars often lead to psychological harm. In addition, society may stigmatize scarred individuals, and the fires caused by incendiary weapons can wipe out farms and destroy workplaces, thus interfering with livelihoods.

Civilians in Syria, Afghanistan, Gaza, and elsewhere have experienced this suffering in the past decade. The international community could prevent future harm if international law on incendiary weapons were strengthened.

Protocol III to the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) prohibits certain uses of incendiary weapons, but its restrictions have fallen short on two counts. First, it prohibits the use of air-delivered incendiary weapons in “concentrations of civilians,” but has weaker regulations for ground-launched models, many of which have been used in Syria.

Second, the current definition of incendiary weapons arguably does not cover multipurpose munitions, such as white phosphorus, because the definition is based on the purpose for which the weapons were “primarily designed,” rather than on their effects. White phosphorus, however, causes harm comparable to other incendiary weapons. It can burn people to the bone and reignite in cleaned wounds once bandages are removed.

The next step toward closing these legal loopholes is to set aside time at CCW meetings to address incendiary weapons. The large majority of states that have spoken on the topic have condemned recent use and argued strongly for such discussions. But since 2018, a small number of states have taken advantage of CCW’s consensus process to block this reasonable request.

Human Rights Watch calls on states at First Committee and the November CCW meeting to highlight the human suffering caused by incendiary weapons, condemn their use, especially in civilian areas, and express support for revisiting Protocol III. It is also essential this year that CCW states parties agree to place incendiary weapons on the agenda for the 2021 Review Conference, an opportunity for progress that should not be missed.

The time for debating procedure is over. The time to take concrete action on behalf of survivors around the world is now.

Thank you.

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