This post originally appeared on humanitariandisarmament.org’s Disarmament Dialogue blog. Videos of the panelists are available there.
As states gathered in Geneva, Switzerland, for a major UN disarmament conference, a recent online event illuminated the cruel effects of incendiary weapons and the need for stronger international law. Incendiary weapons, which produce heat and fire through the chemical reaction of a flammable substance, cause horrific injuries and long-term physical, psychological, and socioeconomic suffering. Protocol III of the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) regulates the use of these weapons, but two loopholes weaken its effectiveness.
The event was entitled, “Incendiary Weapons: The Humanitarian Call for Stronger Law,” and co-hosted by Human Rights Watch and Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic. It featured three panelists: Kim Phuc Phan Thi, survivor of a napalm attack in Vietnam in 1972; Dr. Rola Hallam, a British doctor who treated victims of an incendiary weapons attack in Syria; and Roos Boer, a researcher at PAX, a Dutch peace organization. Kim Phuc and Dr. Hallam detailed the grievous suffering caused by incendiary weapons and articulated their hopes for a more peaceful future, while Boer described financial institutions’ policies for divesting from incendiary weapons.
Moderator Bonnie Docherty, of Human Rights Watch and Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic, opened the event by explaining the shortcomings of existing law and what states should do to address them. First, Protocol III’s definition of incendiary weapons excludes most multipurpose weapons with incendiary effects, such as white phosphorus. Second, the protocol has weaker restrictions for ground-launched weapons than for airdropped ones, even though they have the same damaging effects. At the CCW’s Sixth Review Conference, underway in Geneva until December 17, 2021, CCW states parties should agree to set aside time to assess the adequacy of the protocol with an eye toward strengthening it.
Known around the world as “the girl in the picture,” Kim Phuc was immortalized at age 9 by a photograph that shows her screaming and running naked down a road in Trảng Bàng, Vietnam, after having her clothing burned off by napalm. Kim Phuc’s memories of June 8, 1972, include fleeing bombs and explosions of gasoline and screaming, “too hot,” as her skin was on fire. Her parents located her in a hospital morgue three days after the attack, and she was transferred to a burn clinic in Saigon. Every day a nurse placed her in a tub “filled with a surgical soft solution and warm water [that] made it easier to cut [her] bare skin off.” She remembers, “The pain was unbearable, and I just cried as a child. When I couldn’t bear, when I couldn’t stand it any longer, I just passed out.”
Although Kim Phuc ultimately survived and left the burn clinic 14 months later, she endured lasting physical and emotional scars. She recalls, “I didn’t feel pretty growing up. I was certain no boy would ever love me or marry me and that I would never have a normal life.” She dreamed of being a doctor and was accepted into medical school, but the Vietnamese government cut her off from her studies so that she could serve as a symbol for the state, making her feel like “a victim all over again.” This was a “very low point” in her life. Kim Phuc reports that even now, she still receives laser treatment for burns covering her arm, back, and neck. “With all the scars, [I] have no pores, cannot sweat, so I have diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and gout.” She also still suffers from pain, nightmares, and trauma, and whenever she sees a gun, fear and memories of war and fire return.
While her suffering exemplifies the impacts of incendiary weapons, Kim Phuc expressed hope for the world. She later married, defected to Canada, and founded the Kim Foundation International, a non-profit that funds projects to help child victims of war around the world. She also travels the world as a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador. She described the difficult but liberating task of forgiving those who caused her harm and credits her Christian faith with making that possible. Kim Phuc said that she “will forever bear the scar” of the napalm attack, but she articulated her dream that “one day, all people will live without fear in real peace, no fighting and no hostility.” She said: “I believe that peace, love, and forgiveness will always be more powerful than any kind of weapons.”
Dr. Rola Hallam
Dr. Rola Hallam, a British doctor, humanitarian, and founder of CanDo Action, spoke of the horrors of incendiary weapons from the perspective of an eyewitness and healthcare provider. In August 2013, she treated the victims of an incendiary weapons attack on a school in Urum al-Kubra, Syria. The victims, most of whom were children, were rushed to a hospital she had founded with severe burns. Some screamed in excruciating pain; others were so severely burned that they suffered nerve damage and no longer felt pain. Dr. Hallam said, “That day is etched on my heart, mind, and soul. Even though I have seen so many incidents, none have come as close to scarring me as that. That is what the illegal, unethical, and immoral, and frankly inhumane use of incendiary weapons looks like.” Many of the students died of their wounds, while the most gravely injured survivors were taken to Turkey for specialist care.
Dr. Hallam’s testimony highlighted the psychological trauma that incendiary weapons can cause not only for survivors but also for families, communities, and frontline workers. She noted that one father who lost his daughter has cried about her every day in the eight years since the attack. Dr. Hallam reported that although she herself does not suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, the smell of burning flesh during a surgery years later brought her mind back to the day of the attack. When she thinks of one student who died from incendiary weapon wounds, she “can still hear her scream.”
Dr. Hallam also cited the lack of resources needed to treat victims of incendiary weapons. She recalled, “As a frontline health worker, as a doctor, one of the most devastating things for me was the fact that that day, I had the knowledge, skill, and ability to administer potentially life-saving treatment to these children.” But because of the limited resources available in a conflict setting like Syria, instead of providing proper care in an ambulance, “I had to send many of them choking, in pain, in the back of their parents’ cars.”
Dr. Hallam called on diplomats to act on incendiary weapons and appealed to their humanity. She cited an open letter signed by more than 55 healthcare professionals and burn survivor organizations that demands stronger law on incendiary weapons. She reported feeling uplifted by the resilience she witnessed in Syria: “For every use of these heinous so-called conventional weapons, I have witnessed the human spirit soar and many come to the aid and rescue of those who are injured and devastated, risking their own lives to save others.” She urged diplomats to adopt a similarly humanitarian approach and agree to review Protocol III and protect lives. Dr. Hallam concluded: “You have a legacy to leave your children and their children. You need to be able to look them in the eye and say unequivocally that you did everything possible so that neither they or another innocent child or human being will be inhumanely named and maimed by these weapons.”
Roos Boer, a humanitarian disarmament project leader at PAX, introduced a new PAX report: Put Out the Fire. Strengthening International Law and Divestment Policies on Incendiary Weapons. The report links the human cost of incendiary weapons to international law, arms producers, and the divestment policies of financial institutions.
According to Boer, the report includes a non-exhaustive list of companies that produce incendiary weapons and shows how the types of weapons these companies produce have been used in Syria, Gaza, and Ukraine to the grave detriment of civilians. Linking the effects of incendiary weapons back to the companies that produce them—and then to the financial institutions that invest in those companies—raises awareness about how many of us as individuals can be contributing to incendiary weapons use. As Boer noted, “The link between us and controversial weapon use often goes through our bank accounts or pension savings.”
Boer also described the increasing efforts of financial institutions to divest from companies that produce incendiary weapons. Financial institutions’ research providers list incendiary weapons—including white phosphorus munitions—as controversial and worthy of screening. The report also examines the divestment policies of many financial institutions that find white phosphorus and/or incendiary weapons to be controversial. Interestingly, these institutions base their findings on general principles of international humanitarian law, such as distinction and proportionality, rather than on Protocol III. Unlike Protocol III, which categorizes weapons based on the purpose for which they are designed, the financial institutions instead emphasize the effects incendiary weapons have on civilians and the associated reputational risk for the institutions.
Boer concluded by urging CCW states parties to address the unacceptable harm caused by incendiary weapons: “We call upon states to review and strengthen Protocol III because states should ban the use of all incendiary weapons at least in populated areas and adopt an effects-based definition in Protocol III that covers multipurpose munitions such as white phosphorus. A complete ban on the use of incendiary weapons would benefit civilians most.”
By highlighting personal stories about the effects of incendiary weapons, and by showing how many financial institutions have divested from incendiary weapons producers because of those effects, the event underlined that Protocol III should be amended to focus on the impacts of incendiary weapons and not their design or purpose. Such a focus would remove legal loopholes and save lives.
For further reading, see Human Rights Watch and Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic, “They Burn Through Everything”: The Human Cost of Incendiary Weapons and the Limits of International Law, November 2020, and their February 2021 factsheet “Incendiary Weapons: Call for Action and Human Cost,” available in English, French, and Spanish.