Evidence of the use of incendiary weapons in Ukraine and Syria highlights the need for stricter law to govern these weapons, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today with Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic.
The 16-page report, “Incendiary Weapons: Recent Use and Growing Opposition,” details incendiary weapon attacks in Ukraine and Syria and illustrates the increasing stigma against the weapons. Incendiary weapons can cause excruciatingly painful thermal and respiratory burns. Victims who survive often suffer long-term physical and psychological damage due to extensive scarring and disfigurement.
“Weapons that cause terrible burns and disfigure survivors have been used against towns in both Syria and Ukraine,” said Bonnie Docherty, senior Arms researcher at Human Rights Watch and lead author of the report. “The recent attacks with incendiary weapons show it’s past time for nations to reassess and strengthen international law on these cruel weapons,” said Docherty, who is also a lecturer in the Harvard clinic.
The report is being distributed at the annual meeting of countries that are party to the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW), which is being held at the United Nations in Geneva from November 10-14, 2014. Protocol III of the treaty bans certain use of incendiary weapons, but its loopholes and inconsistencies have not been addressed since the law was created more than 30 years ago.
Human Rights Watch researchers will present the report’s findings at a CCW side event at 2 p.m. on November 12 in Room XXIV at the UN Palais des Nations in Geneva.
Human Rights Watch documented attacks with incendiary Grad rockets on two towns in Ukraine, although the organization was unable to confirm the party responsible. In Syria in 2014, government forces have continued their use of incendiary weapons and have also dropped indiscriminate barrel bombs containing incendiary components.
All countries and especially CCW states parties should condemn such use of incendiary weapons and express support for revisiting and amending the protocol, Human Rights Watch and the Harvard clinic said.
Countries should seize this moment to strengthen Protocol III because there is growing recognition that incendiary weapons cause unacceptable harm, the organizations said. For example, Israel avoided use of white phosphorus munitions during its 2014 military operations in Gaza, apparently because of the international criticism generated by its use of these munitions in 2009 in Gaza. Over the past year, at least a dozen countries have expressed concern at the civilian casualties from the use of incendiary weapons.
The treaty’s incendiary weapons protocol should be amended to clearly cover munitions with white phosphorus because they cause the same kinds of effects as other incendiary munitions. White phosphorus munitions are not covered at present because they are primarily designed to be used as smokescreens or illuminants.
The protocol should also be amended to prohibit the use in populated areas of ground-launched as well as air-dropped incendiary weapons. An absolute ban on incendiary weapons would have the greatest humanitarian benefits, Human Rights Watch and the Harvard clinic said.
A total of 109 states are party to Protocol III of the 1980 Convention on Conventional Weapons. Parties include all five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Ukraine, but not Syria.