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November 9, 2020

Incendiary Weapons: Human Cost Demands Stronger Law

Clinic, HRW Argue Legal Loopholes Must Close to Prevent Further Civilian Suffering

(Geneva) – The horrific burns and life-long suffering caused by incendiary weapons demand that governments urgently revise existing treaty standards, Human Rights Watch and Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic said in a report jointly published today.

The 45-page report, “‘They Burn Through Everything’: The Human Cost of Incendiary Weapons and the Limits of International Law,” details the immediate injuries and lasting physical, psychological, and socioeconomic harm of incendiary weapons, including white phosphorus, used by parties to recent conflicts. Countries should revisit and strengthen the international treaty governing these weapons, which burn people and set civilian structures and property on fire, Human Rights Watch concluded.

“While victims endure the cruel effects of incendiary weapons, countries endlessly debate whether even to hold formal discussions on the weapons,” said Bonnie Docherty, senior arms researcher at Human Rights Watch and associate director of armed conflict and civilian protection at the International Human Rights Clinic. “Countries should recognize the long-term suffering of survivors by addressing the shortcomings of existing international law.”

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May 4, 2012

Incendiary Weapons: Growing Support for Stronger Protections

Posted by Michael Jacobson, JD '13, and Patricia Villa Berger, LLM '13, Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy At Tufts University

Support is growing for strengthening regulations of incendiary weapons, according to a new paper published by the International Human Rights Clinic and Human Rights Watch. In addition to analyzing countries’ positions, the paper highlights recent use, stockpiling, and production of incendiary weapons, which demonstrate the urgent need for better international law.

The Clinic and Human Rights Watch urge states to open diplomatic discussions on incendiary weapons as soon as possible and to move towards amending current international law with the goal of enhancing humanitarian protection.

An image of a cluster munition on a desert landscape of red clay.
An IHRC team found this white phosphorus munition at one of Qaddafi’s abandoned weapons depots in Libya in March.

The law in question is the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW), an international treaty regulating weapons that cause unnecessary suffering or have indiscriminate effects. Incendiary weapons pose a significant threat to civilians, causing severe burns, asphyxiation, and, in some cases, death. States adopted CCW Protocol III to regulate the weapons in 1980.

But according to the Clinic and Human Rights Watch, the protocol has multiple loopholes; for example, it does not cover use of dual-purpose weapons with incendiary effects, like white phosphorus munitions, which have been used since 2003 in Afghanistan. Protocol III also establishes inconsistent regulations for weapons that produce the same harm.

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