(Geneva, November 20, 2017) – Countries should respond to reports of new use of incendiary weapons in Syria by working to strengthen the international law governing these exceptionally cruel weapons, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.
The 28-page report, “An Overdue Review: Addressing Incendiary Weapons in the Contemporary Context,” documents use of incendiary weapons by the coalition of Syrian government and Russian forces in 2017. It urges countries at a UN disarmament meeting, held in Geneva from November 22 to 24, 2017, to initiate a review of Protocol III of the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW). This protocol, which regulates incendiary weapons, has failed to prevent their ongoing use, endangering civilians.
“Countries should react to the threat posed by incendiary weapons by closing the loopholes in outdated international law,” said Bonnie Docherty, associate director of armed conflict and civilian protection at Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic, which co-published the report. “Stronger law would mean stronger protections for civilians.”
Docherty, who is also senior arms researcher at Human Rights Watch, presented the report’s findings at a side event at the United Nations in Geneva today.
Incendiary weapons produce heat and fire through the chemical reaction of a flammable substance. They can be designed for marking and signaling or to burn materiel, penetrate plate metal, or produce smokescreens. Incendiary weapons cause excruciating burns, disfigurement, and psychological trauma, and they start fires that destroy civilian objects and infrastructure.
For the first time in nearly four decades, countries that are parties to the 1980 treaty have devoted a specific session at their annual meeting to Protocol III. The meeting will also address fully autonomous weapons, or “killer robots.”
States parties should seize this opportunity to hold robust discussions about the harm caused by incendiary weapons and the adequacy of Protocol III, Human Rights Watch said. They should condemn recent use, support a formal review of the protocol, with an eye to strengthening it, and set aside more time for in-depth discussions in 2018.
In 2017, Human Rights Watch documented 22 attacks with incendiary weapons across five governorates of Syria by Syrian government forces or their Russian allies. From 2012 to 2016, Human Rights Watch documented at least 68 attacks by the same forces, as well as several cases of severe civilian harm. While Syria is not a party to Protocol III, Russia is.
As recently as November 12, photographs and video reportedly taken in Syria’s Idlib governorate as well as a report from Syria Civil Defense field workers indicate the use of air-delivered incendiary weapons, although Human Rights Watch has been unable to confirm these specific attacks.
The continued use of incendiary weapons in Syria shows that countries, including Syria, need to join Protocol III and comply with its restrictions on use in populated areas, Human Rights Watch said. The use also demonstrates the need for stronger norms, which can increase the stigma against the weapons and influence even those not party to the protocol.
Protocol III has two major loopholes. First, its definition excludes multipurpose weapons, such as those with white phosphorus, which may be primarily designed to provide smokescreens or illumination, but can inflict the same horrific injuries as other incendiary weapons. White phosphorus, for example, can burn through human flesh to the bone and reignite days after treatment if exposed to oxygen.
In 2017, the US-led coalition used white phosphorus while fighting to retake Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq from the Islamic State. While Human Rights Watch has not confirmed casualties from these incidents, the New York Times reported that munitions containing white phosphorous hit an internet café, killing approximately 20 people.
Second, while the protocol prohibits the use of air-dropped incendiary weapons in populated areas, it allows the use of ground-delivered models in certain circumstances. All incendiary weapons cause the same effects, however, and this arbitrary distinction should be eliminated. A complete ban on incendiary weapons would have the greatest humanitarian benefits.
In recent years, a growing number of countries have condemned the use of incendiary weapons and called for revisiting or strengthening Protocol III. At the meeting in Geneva, they should expand on their positions, and new countries should add their voices to the debate.
“Existing law on incendiary weapons is a legacy of the US war in Vietnam and a Cold War compromise,” said Docherty. “But the political and military landscape has changed, and it is time for the law to reflect current problems.”
The new report was researched and written by clinical students Allie Brudney, JD ’19, Sofia Falzoni, JD ’19, and Natalie McCauley, JD ’19, under the supervision of Bonnie Docherty.