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Incendiary Weapons: Heed Calls to Strengthen Law

Healthcare Professionals, Burn Survivor Organizations Seek Stronger Rules

An incendiary weapon falls in Eastern Ghouta on the outskirts of Damascus, Syria, on March 23, 2018. © 2018 HAMZA AL-AJWEH/AFP via Getty Images

(Geneva, December 9, 2021) – The cruel consequences of incendiary weapons warrant reviewing and strengthening international legal rules governing their use, Human Rights Watch said today. Countries will decide whether to initiate talks on these weapons at a meeting of the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW), a major disarmament treaty, which opens at the United Nations in Geneva on December 13, 2021. 

“Governments should act on growing calls to prevent further human suffering from incendiary weapons,” said Bonnie Docherty, senior arms researcher at Human Rights Watch and associate director of armed conflict and civilian protection at Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic. “Strengthening international law governing weapons that cause exceptionally severe burns is a legal necessity, a humanitarian imperative, and eminently feasible.”

In November healthcare professionals and burn survivor organizations joined those demanding action on incendiary weapons through an open letter to governments.

Human Rights Watch will highlight the humanitarian arguments underpinning these appeals in a webinar on Friday, December 10, at 2 p.m. CET. The event will feature Kim Phuc, a napalm survivor who was shown fleeing an attack in a famous Vietnam War photograph; Dr. Rola Hallam, a British doctor who treated incendiary weapons victims in Syria; and Roos Boer, a researcher from the Dutch peace organization PAX who will present a new report on divestment from incendiary weapons.

Incendiary weapons produce heat and fire through the chemical reaction of a flammable substance. Over the past 15 years, Human Rights Watch has documented civilian harm from the use of incendiary weapons in Afghanistan, Gaza, Iraq, Syria, Ukraine, and Yemen.

Incendiary weapons inflict severe burns, sometimes to the bone, and can cause respiratory damage, infection, shock, and organ damage, leading to long-term physical and psychological impacts. Incendiary weapons also start fires that can destroy homes, damage critical infrastructure and crops, and kill livestock.

Protocol III to the Convention on Conventional Weapons regulates the use of incendiary weapons, but its ability to protect civilians has been undermined by two loopholes. First, it prohibits the use of air-dropped incendiary weapons in civilian areas, but permits the use of ground-launched versions under certain circumstances. This arbitrary distinction ignores the harm caused by incendiary weapons regardless of their delivery mechanism.

Second, Protocol III’s definition does not encompass white phosphorus or other munitions that are “primarily designed” to create smokescreens or signal troops, yet produce the same horrific incendiary effects. White phosphorus munitions can burn people to the bone, smolder inside the body, and reignite when bandages are removed.

“Countries should close the loopholes that have limited the effectiveness of international law on incendiary weapons,” Docherty said. “A complete ban on incendiary weapons would provide the strongest stigma and have the greatest humanitarian benefits.”

At the CCW Sixth Review Conference on December 13-17, participating countries will decide whether to take the first step and start a process to assess the adequacy of Protocol III amid evidence of civilian harm from the use of incendiary weapons in Syria and elsewhere. Russia was able to block a proposal to consider Protocol III’s status and operation at the last annual meeting of CCW states parties, in 2019.

Two dozen states, plus the European Union and the International Committee of the Red Cross, have raised concerns about incendiary weapons since the last five-year Review Conference in 2016. Most have called for Protocol III’s arbitrary and outdated distinctions to be scrapped.

Ahead of the 2021 Review Conference, more than 50 healthcare professionals, burn survivor groups, and medical-related organizations from 11 countries expressed their opposition to “any use of incendiary weapons due to the excruciating harm they cause,” and urged governments to “revisit and strengthen existing law … to prevent further human suffering from these cruel weapons.”

The signatories, who have treated or experienced burn injuries, have a unique understanding of the type of suffering caused by incendiary weapons. They bring a new voice to the discussions and speak with extra authority when they declare that “addressing incendiary weapons at the international level is a humanitarian imperative,” Human Rights Watch and the Harvard Human Rights Clinic said.

One signatory, Dr. Rola Hallam, a physician who treated victims of an incendiary weapons attack on a Syrian school, said: “Incendiary weapons create deep, ongoing disabilities, and the medical system [in a conflict zone] is not equipped to deal with that.”

At the UN General Assembly in October, 10 nongovernmental organizations called on countries to condemn the use of incendiary weapons and strengthen international law to prevent further harm and suffering.

“Agreeing to initiate talks on incendiary weapons should be an easy decision for the CCW Review Conference,” Docherty said. “Any country that opposes this step would not only let politics outweigh humanitarian concerns but also raise questions about the viability of the convention itself.”

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