This month marks the 66th anniversary of the World War II firebombing of Dresden, Germany—an event that demonstrated to the world the devastating power of incendiary weapons.  From February 13 to 15, 1945, British and U.S. forces dropped hundreds of tons of incendiary and high explosive bombs on the mostly undefended cultural center of Dresden, where thousands of people had sought refuge from the Eastern Front.  The resulting firestorm destroyed 1,600 acres of the city center and killed an estimated 25,000 to 100,000 people.

Based on his firsthand experience, Kurt Vonnegut describes the scene in his novel, Slaughterhouse-Five:

“Dresden was one big flame.  The one flame ate everything organic, everything that would burn. . . . One thing was clear: Absolutely everybody in the city was supposed to be dead, regardless of what they were, and that anybody that moved in it represented a flaw in the design.”

During World War II, incendiary weapons generally brought to mind the firebombs used to destroy residential city centers.  Over time, the nature of armed conflict has changed, as has the design of certain incendiary weapons, but militaries continue to use them—often at serious risk to civilians.

Destruction inside a hospital in Gaza City, with wood and beams falling down everywhere
The scorched children’s playroom inside Gaza City’s Al-Quds hospital was destroyed during a white phosphorus attack on January 15, 2009. © 2009 Marc Garlasco/Human Rights Watch

In 2004, the United States launched incendiary shells into the city of Fallujah, Iraq; witnesses reported seeing charred bodies of Iraqi civilians, echoing the scenes in Dresden in 1945.  More recently, when Israel used white phosphorus in Gaza in 2008, the substance both injured civilians and set fire to a school, a hospital, and other non-military buildings.

The International Human Rights Clinic has worked for several years to protect civilians through campaigning for a ban on cluster munitions; now, with Human Rights Watch, we are broadening our focus to push for stronger protections from incendiary weapons. Existing law is not enough.

To the credit of the Allies, they did much in the post-war era to help create international laws of war that would protect civilians from area bombardment. But international law did not deal directly with incendiary weapons until 1980, when Protocol III of the UN Convention on Conventional Weapons more clearly banned bombings like those that occurred in Dresden.

At the time, the drafters had in mind the horrors of World War II firebombings and the then-recent images of Vietnamese children burned by napalm.  They did not envision the development of new technology, or the shift to urban counterinsurgency warfare we now see in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

As a result, Protocol III has weaker regulations for ground-launched incendiary weapons than for air-dropped incendiary weapons—even though artillery models are more commonly used today.  It also leaves open broad loopholes for munitions that are designed to produce smokescreens or illuminate targets, with only “incidental” incendiary effects.

A family watches as a burning wedge of white phosphorus burns downs on the ground.
A burning wedge of white phosphorus in Khuza’a village ten days after it hit the town. The spent wedges usually contain enough phosphorus after burning out that they reignite when kicked. © 2009 Marc Garlasco/Human Rights Watch

When some of these munitions explode in the air, they release 116 white phosphorus-soaked wedges that ignite with oxygen, burn at up to 1,500° F, and spread over an area the size of several football fields.  The munitions may create a smokescreen, but they also set fire to civilian buildings and burn through flesh to the bone, leaving wounds that can later reignite.  In recent years, militaries have used these kinds of incendiaries with devastating consequences for civilians, not only in Gaza and Iraq, but also in Chechnya (1994-95), Somalia (2007), and south Lebanon (2006).

As the world debates disarmament issues, the Clinic will continue to push for the strengthening of Protocol III as a priority.  Experience has shown that the harm to civilians outweighs the military usefulness of incendiary weapons.  After 66 years, it is time truly to put the atrocity of Dresden behind us; we must work with the international community to strengthen the treaty’s protections of civilians from the fires of war.

Joe Phillips is a member of the Clinic’s incendiary weapons team. Clinical Instructor Bonnie Docherty leads the team. Docherty is also a senior researcher with the Arms Division of Human Rights Watch.