Last week, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a new report on the use of and growing opposition against incendiary weapons in Israel, Syria, and Ukraine. The group presented the report at the 2014 meeting of high contracting parties to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) that convened in Geneva, 10–14 November 2014.

WILPF’s disarmament programme Reaching Critical Will (RCW) attended the meeting to report and engage in the discussions on deadly weapons. For more information, see Reaching Critical Will’s report of this meeting.

The Horrible Effects of Incendiary Weapons

Incendiary weapons are exceptionally horrific weapons that inflict painful burns and require equally painful treatment, leaving survivors with devastating injuries. They are designed to burn people or material, penetrate plate metal, or produce smokescreens or illuminations.

The report presents credible documentation about the use of incendiary weapons in the conflict areas of Ukraine and Syria. HRW has recorded at least 57 attacks during the last two years where the Syrian government used incendiary weapons. In 2013 two incendiary bombs were dropped on a school in Aleppo, Syria, killing at least 37 civilians and wounded 44 others, mostly teenagers.

Dr. Sahleya Ahsan working as a volunteer at Altarib Hospital told HRW: “Three bodies were in a pickup truck outside the hospital courtyard. These bodies, of three female students, were unrecognizable due the severity of their burns. It was also impossible to tell that they were in fact female but I was informed by hospital staff they were. They had been in the hit area of the bomb.”

Incendiary Weapons

Photo Credit: Sasha Maksymenko

During field missions to Ukraine this year, HRW also found evidence that incendiary weapons were used in the town Ilovaisk and the village Luhanskoe, both located near Donetsk in the east of Ukraine, where much of the fighting is taking place.

Because of the exceptionally cruel effects, the report also found growing international opposition and condemnations against the use of incendiary weapons. In addition, this may have led some states to stop using such weapons. Israel, which previously used white phosphorous in Gaza in 2009, did not do so during its bombardment of Gaza in 2014.

The CCW and its Loopholes

The CCW aims to limit the use of certain conventional weapons that cause unnecessary suffering and inhumane injuries. Protocol III of the CCW has limited the use of incendiary weapons in particular. Unfortunately not all states are parties to the Protocol. Furthermore Protocol III still has substantial loopholes discussed in the report by the HRW.

The definition of incendiary weapons as a munition “primarily designed” to set fire to objects or to cause burn injuries to persons is one such loophole. White phosphorous is arguably not covered by the Protocol, even though it has the incendiary effects, as this is not its primary designation.

Another loophole permits certain use of ground-launched incendiary weapons.

What can be done to prevent and support victims of Incendiary Weapons?

In its statement to the CCW meeting, HRW encouraged all states to condemn any use of incendiary weapons and to work to close existing loopholes of the treaty. The human rights group called for an effects-based definition of incendiary weapons and urged states to prohibit the use of all such weapons within populated areas.

Article 36, another civil society organisation working to prevent humanitarian harm from weapons, called on states to prohibit the use of all incendiary weapons. WILPF supports this call and urges CCW parties to address this issue immediately.

In the meantime, states and civil society groups must explore what can be done to prevent and support victims of such tragic events. As shown by the HRW report, it is extremely important to stigmatise and build norms that condemn these horrific weapons.

Raise your voice to participate in the debate against weaponisation and militarisation and join us in The Hague in April 2015 for a global Conference in support of Women’s Power to Stop War!

To learn more about disarmament issues, have a look at Reaching Critical Will’s website.