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May 4, 2021

A Burning Issue: The Human Cost of Incendiary Weapons

Posted by Jacqulyn Kantack, Human Rights Watch

This post also appears on the Humanitarian Disarmament website.

Incendiary weapons inflict excruciating physical and psychological injuries on civilians in conflict zones, and those who survive endure a lifetime of suffering. While Protocol III to the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) regulates the use of incendiary weapons, loopholes in the protocol have limited its effectiveness.

“The Human Cost of Incendiary Weapons and Shortcomings of International Law,” a recent online event organized by Human Rights Watch and Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC), brought together an incendiary weapon survivor, a military trauma nurse, a burn rehabilitation doctor, and a disarmament lawyer, who collectively highlighted the problems of these cruel weapons. Drawing on their first-hand experiences and professional expertise, the speakers vividly detailed the humanitarian consequences of incendiary weapons and called on states to strengthen international law regulating their use.

Two of the panelists had personally witnessed the horrors of incendiary weapons. “Abu Taim” (pseudonym) was a teacher at a school in Urum al-Kubra, Syria, that was attacked with incendiary weapons in 2013. In pre-recorded video testimony, he recalled exiting the school right after the strike: “I saw bodies, and those bodies were only black. . . . I came closer to their bodies to know, who are those people? Who are those students? I didn’t recognize their faces.”

Content Warning: This video contains descriptions of an incendiary weapon attack and traumatic events.

Testimony from “Abu Taim.” Video courtesy of Human Rights Watch.

Christine Collins, then a US Air Force captain, served as the primary trauma nurse for Razia, an 8-year-old girl burned in a white phosphorus attack in Afghanistan in 2009. Collins described the difficulties of treating Razia’s burns, which covered 40-45 percent of her body and had in some places penetrated to the bone. Because white phosphorus continues to burn when exposed to oxygen, the medical team at Bagram Air Base was forced to “remove the white phosphorus truly by any means possible, which meant . . . cutting it out of her skin.” Razia required around-the-clock nursing care, including painful hourly wound treatments.’

Content Warning: This video contains graphic imagery of incendiary weapon burns.

Testimony from Christine R. Collins.

Dr. Jeffrey Schneider, medical director of trauma, burn, and orthopedic rehabilitation at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, discussed the complexities of treating burn injuries and the long-term physical challenges burn survivors face. As a burn expert he quoted said: “Nowhere in surgery is the patient’s life at risk from so many disorders of function for so long, and surely nowhere are pain and physical and emotional suffering any greater.”

Symptoms such as chronic pain, restricted joint mobility, neuropathy, and an inability to regulate temperature are typical and can last for years or decades after the original injury. In the long term, burn survivors are often unable to perform basic tasks like washing their faces or turning a doorknob. Almost 80 percent of survivors whose burns require inpatient rehabilitation also suffer from cognitive impairments, including memory loss and an inability to concentrate or solve problems.

In addition to describing the serious physical injuries caused by incendiary weapon burns, the panelists highlighted the dramatic psychological and social effects. Dr. Schneider explained that the psychosocial impact of burns “can’t be underestimated. The injury completely changes the trajectory of one’s life, and redefin[es] the kind of life one will have, and the issues they’ll face, and how they have to manage them.” He noted that post-traumatic stress disorder and depression are common among burn survivors, and they often face issues related to body image and experience social stigma and difficulty returning to normal social interactions.

Content Warning: This video contains graphic imagery of burns.

Remarks by Dr. Jeffrey Schneider.

Collins and Abu Taim offered compelling personal accounts of the psychological impacts Dr. Schneider outlined. Collins remembered, “As Razia began to recover from her burns, her eyes and her body language definitely told a different story. There was a deep sadness in her eyes, and a sense of anger.” When Razia looked in the mirror for the first time after the attack, Collins recalled, “she just stared for a moment, really didn’t have anything to say, and just turned around and walked away. . . . Her burns had transformed her identity, and also burnt away who that little girl once was before the injury.”

Although he was not physically injured in the Syrian school attack in 2013, Abu Taim still experiences considerable psychological suffering. He said that after the attack, he “was a different person. I was a very scared person of every noise, that even if you move the chair, I will be on the ground. I used to cry, and I used to stay home, not socializing, not doing anything. I was thinking that life is just done for my side.”

The combination of physical and psychosocial effects of burns often interferes with a survivor’s ability to resume normal activities. Abu Taim was asked to return to his teaching position at the school, but he found the prospect too distressing. Dr. Schneider noted that Abu Taim’s experience is common among burn survivors. According to a recent study, only about one-third of survivors go back “to their same job, with their same employer without any accommodations for the work, which really underlines the amount of disruption it causes in their lives.” Dr. Schneider further noted that burn injuries similarly interfere with young burn victims’ schooling. The inability to return to work or school can prevent survivors from reconnecting with their communities or providing for their families, thus undermining their quality of life.

Countries have the opportunity to take action to prevent the kind of suffering described by Abu Taim, Collins, and Dr. Schneider. At the conclusion of the event, Bonnie Docherty of Human Rights Watch and Harvard Law School’s IHRC urged CCW states parties to strengthen Protocol III in two ways. They should: (1) expand the protocol’s definition of incendiary weapons to include white phosphorus munitions, and (2) amend its regulations to prohibit the use of all incendiary weapons in areas with concentrations of civilians.

As a first step, these countries should hold substantive discussions about incendiary weapons at the CCW Sixth Review Conference, which is scheduled for December. Docherty’s appeal echoed calls from the other speakers who have themselves experienced or witnessed the effects of burn injuries. As Dr. Schneider said, “Any efforts we can make to reduce the impact of burns in war zones and unnecessary suffering and lifelong disruption for innocent people is a cause worth fighting for.”

Remarks from Bonnie Docherty.

The event was moderated by Roos Boer of PAX. For a full recording of the event, including the Q&A, email [email protected] 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.

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