Human Rights Watch for strengthening treaties governing incendiary weapons
Geneva (TP) November 12, 2020: Human Rights Watch has urged world governments to revise and strengthen treaties governing incendiary weapons that cause human cost.
“The horrific burns and life-long suffering caused by incendiary weapons demand that governments urgently revise existing treaty standards,” Human Rights Watch and Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic said in a report jointly published today.
The 45-page report, “‘They Burn Through Everything’: The Human Cost of Incendiary Weapons and the Limits of International Law,” details the immediate injuries and lasting physical, psychological, and socioeconomic harm of incendiary weapons, including white phosphorus, used by parties to recent conflicts. Countries should revisit and strengthen the international treaty governing these weapons, which burn people and set civilian structures and property on fire, Human Rights Watch concluded.
“While victims endure the cruel effects of incendiary weapons, countries endlessly debate whether even to hold formal discussions on the weapons,” said Bonnie Docherty, senior arms researcher at Human Rights Watch and associate director of armed conflict and civilian protection at the International Human Rights Clinic. “Countries should recognize the long-term suffering of survivors by addressing the shortcomings of existing international law,” it said.
The report is based on extended interviews with survivors, witnesses, field doctors and nurses, burn specialists, and other experts, as well as in-depth research published in medical journals. It includes case studies from Afghanistan, Gaza, and Syria.
Incendiary weapons inflict excruciating burns, sometimes to the bone, and can cause respiratory damage, infection, shock, and organ damage. Over time, extensive scarring tightens muscle tissue and creates physical disabilities. The trauma of the attack, the painful treatment that follows, and appearance-changing scars lead to psychological harm and social exclusion.
The inadequacies of health care available in armed conflict settings exacerbate the already difficult process of treating serious burns. Long-term disabilities, the cost of medical care, and the loss of property associated with incendiary weapons have adverse socioeconomic impacts.
“Incendiary weapons cause devastating burns, and in far worse ways than any of the standard scald or fire burns,” said Dr Rola Hallam, a physician who treated incendiary weapon victims in Syria. “They can burn through everything. If they can burn through metal, what hope does human flesh have?”
“Protocol III to the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW), adopted in 1980, regulates incendiary weapons, which produce heat and fire through the chemical reaction of a flammable substance. But two notable loopholes limit the protocol’s effectiveness. First, its design-based definition excludes certain multipurpose munitions with incendiary effects, including those with white phosphorus. Second, its restrictions on ground-launched incendiary weapons are weaker than those for airdropped models. Countries party to the treaty have expressed concerns about the use of incendiary weapons for many years, but they should dedicate discussions on the adequacy of Protocol III,” Human Rights Watch and the Harvard International Human Rights Clinic said.
The CCW’s annual meeting was scheduled to be held from November 11-13, 2020 at the United Nations in Geneva. Due to new pandemic-related restrictions, however, the meeting was reportedly postponed, just days before it began.
While the UN has not yet set a new date for the CCW annual meeting, countries should use the intervening time to build support for action on incendiary weapons, Human Rights Watch and the Harvard clinic said.
Over the coming months, CCW states parties should agree to set aside time at the treaty’s five-year Review Conference, scheduled for late 2021, to evaluate the adequacy of Protocol III and start a process to close the protocol’s loopholes.
“Many governments have shown an interest in an in-depth assessment of Protocol III’s limits,” Docherty said. “The small number of countries blocking the way should recognize the humanitarian imperative of reviewing and revising this outdated convention.”