Blog: Incendiary Weapons

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.”

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December 2, 2020

Incendiary Weapons Through a Humanitarian Disarmament Lens

Posted by Erin Shortell JD'21

On August 26, 2013, 18-year-old Muhammed Assi stood in the courtyard of a Syrian school talking with five classmates. Suddenly, an incendiary bomb landed in the middle of the group of students, immediately killing all but Muhammed.

“The intensity of the explosion threw me a distance of about three to four meters from where the missile struck,” Muhammed said. “We were surrounded by the fire. I used my hands to hit my head to try to snuff out the fire.” Other students screamed in horror, many badly burned and calling out for help, and dead bodies lay in the schoolyard. Muhammed recalled, “Time seems to stop when these things happen to you… [W]ords can’t describe my feelings, but I saw the fire completely surrounding me from everywhere, and when the breeze blew, it fed oxygen into the incendiary substance and made it burn even stronger.”

In a new report entitled, “They Burn Through Everything”: The Human Cost of Incendiary Weapons and the Limits of International Law, Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the Harvard Law School International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC) detail the human suffering inflicted by incendiary weapons. These weapons produce heat and fire through the chemical reaction of a flammable substance. Protocol III to the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) imposes some restrictions on the use of incendiary weapons, but it has failed to adequately protect civilians like Muhammed. While CCW states parties have expressed concerns about the use of incendiary weapons for years, the report urges them to formalize these discussions at their Review Conference next year and to strengthen Protocol III.

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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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November 16, 2018

Clinic, Human Rights Watch Call for Urgent Action on Incendiary Weapons


(Geneva, November 14, 2018) – Countries at an upcoming United Nations disarmament conference, faced with evidence of 30 new incendiary weapons attacks in Syria, should agree to strengthen the international law that governs their use, the International Human Rights Clinic said in a report released this week.

The 13-page report, “Myths and Realities About Incendiary Weapons,” counters common misconceptions that have slowed international progress in this area. Incendiary weapons produce heat and fire through the chemical reaction of a flammable substance. While often designed for marking and signaling or producing smokescreens, incendiary weapons can burn human flesh to the bone, leave extensive scarring, and cause respiratory damage and psychological trauma. They also start fires that destroy civilian objects and infrastructure.

“The excruciating burns and lifelong disabilities inflicted by incendiary weapons demand a global response,” said Bonnie Docherty, associate director of conflict and civilian protection at the Clinic. “Simple changes in international law could help save civilian lives during wartime.”

The report details the exceptionally cruel harm caused by incendiary weapons, explains the shortcomings of existing law, and lays out steps countries should take in response. The report, designed as an accessible overview of the incendiary weapons issue, was jointly published with Human Rights Watch.

Countries that are party to the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) are scheduled to address incendiary weapons at the UN in Geneva from November 19 to 23. Protocol III to this treaty imposes some restrictions on the use of incendiary weapons, but it does not provide sufficient protections for civilians.
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January 7, 2016

“Fighting for Disarmament”: Bonnie Docherty’s work featured in Harvard Gazette


This Q & A by reporter Liz Mineo ran in the Harvard Gazette on January 3, 2015

After researching the devastating humanitarian effects of the deadly cluster munitions used in Afghanistan in 2002, Bonnie Docherty joined a worldwide campaign to eliminate them.

Six years after she started her probe, cluster bombs were banned. Her investigation on the use of cluster munitions in Afghanistan, and later in Iraq and Lebanon, was highly influential in a 2008 treaty, joined by 118 countries, that bans these weapons.

A woman sits in front of a table gesturing at various objects.
Bonnie showing examples of inert cluster munitions. Credit: Jon Chase, Harvard staff photographer

For Docherty, a lecturer on law and a senior instructor at the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School, the battle to protect civilians from unnecessary harm continues.

Last month, Docherty traveled to Geneva to advocate for stronger regulations on incendiary devices, which she calls “exceptionally cruel weapons” that have been used in Syria, Libya, and Ukraine.

Docherty, who is also a senior researcher in the arms division at Human Rights Watch, recently sat down for an interview to talk about these weapons, killer robots, and her guiding principle: to protect civilians from suffering caused by armed conflicts.

GAZETTE: Before you became a disarmament advocate, you were a reporter for a local newspaper. Can you tell us about this part of your life?

DOCHERTY: After college, I was a reporter for The Middlesex News, now the MetroWest Daily News, outside of Boston, for three years. I covered mostly local news, government meetings, environmental issues, but I had the opportunity to go to Bosnia and embed with the peacekeepers for about 10 days in 1998. There was an Army lab in my town, that’s how I got the invitation to go to Bosnia. I had been interested in armed conflicts, but that trip definitely increased my interest in that field.

GAZETTE: How did you make the jump from suburban journalism to human rights and disarmament issues?

DOCHERTY: After I left the newsroom, I went to Harvard Law School. Right after graduation, I went to Human Rights Watch, which was a perfect mix of journalism and law because you go out in the field and you apply the law to what you find. My start date was Sept. 12, 2001, by happenstance, so whatever was planned was changed. Six months later, I was in Afghanistan researching the use of cluster munitions, which was my first exposure to disarmament issues.

GAZETTE: What are cluster munitions, and why are they so dangerous?

DOCHERTY: Cluster munitions are large weapons, such as bombs or rockets that contain dozens or hundreds of small munitions called submunitions. They’re problematic because they have a broad area effect — they spread over the size of a football field — and because many of them don’t explode on impact and lie around like landmines and explode in years or decades to come.

GAZETTE: How did your involvement with cluster munitions begin?

A yellow object is held by hands.
Bonnie holds an inert submunition fragment from a cluster munition. Credit: Jon Chase, Harvard staff photographer

DOCHERTY: I went to Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, and later Georgia to document the use of these weapons. I’ve spoken with dozens of victims of cluster munitions, but the story I remember the most is when I was in Lebanon with two students from Harvard Law’s International Human Rights Clinic in 2006. We were there doing field research after Israel used cluster munitions in Lebanon. We were at a restaurant, and someone asked us to go to the town of Halta immediately. When we arrived, we found out that two hours earlier a 12-year-old boy had been killed by a cluster submunition. He had been playing with his brother, who had been throwing pinecones at him. The boy picked up something to throw back at his brother. It turned out to be a submunition. His friend said, “Oh, no. That’s dangerous, drop it,” and when he went to throw it away, it exploded next to his head. When we were there, they were still cleaning up the pool of blood from his body. The Lebanese army found 10, 12 submunitions lying around right next to a village, waiting to kill or injure civilians, farmers, children.

GAZETTE: Your research on cluster munitions led you to become one of the world’s most widely known advocates against these weapons. How did this happen?

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November 11, 2014

Clinic Report: Incendiary Weapons Threaten Civilians in Ukraine, Syria


PRESS RELEASE


Ukraine, Syria: Incendiary Weapons Threaten Civilians


Stronger International Law Needed for Weapons That Burn

(Geneva, November 11, 2014) – Evidence of the use of incendiary weapons in Ukraine and Syria highlights the need for stricter law to govern these weapons, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today with Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic.

The 16-page report, “Incendiary Weapons: Recent Use and Growing Opposition,” details incendiary weapon attacks in Ukraine and Syria and illustrates the increasing stigma against the weapons. Incendiary weapons can cause excruciatingly painful thermal and respiratory burns. Victims who survive often suffer long-term physical and psychological damage due to extensive scarring and disfigurement.

A misfired Grad 9M22S rocket equipped with a 9N510 incendiary warhead found near Ilovaisk, Ukraine on October 12, 2014. ©2014 Human Rights Watch/Mark Hiznay
A misfired Grad 9M22S rocket equipped with a 9N510 incendiary warhead found near Ilovaisk, Ukraine on October 12, 2014. ©2014 Human Rights Watch/Mark Hiznay

“Weapons that cause terrible burns and disfigure survivors have been used against towns in both Syria and Ukraine,” said Bonnie Docherty, senior Arms researcher at Human Rights Watch and lead author of the report. “The recent attacks with incendiary weapons show it’s past time for nations to reassess and strengthen international law on these cruel weapons,” said Docherty, who is also a lecturer in the Harvard clinic.

The report is being distributed at the annual meeting of countries that are party to the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW), which is being held at the United Nations in Geneva from November 10-14, 2014. Protocol III of the treaty bans certain use of incendiary weapons, but its loopholes and inconsistencies have not been addressed since the law was created more than 30 years ago.

Human Rights Watch researchers will present the report’s findings at a CCW side event at 2 p.m. on November 12 in Room XXIV at the UN Palais des Nations in Geneva.

Human Rights Watch documented attacks with incendiary Grad rockets on two towns in Ukraine, although the organization was unable to confirm the party responsible. In Syria in 2014, government forces have continued their use of incendiary weapons and have also dropped indiscriminate barrel bombs containing incendiary components.

All countries and especially CCW states parties should condemn such use of incendiary weapons and express support for revisiting and amending the protocol, Human Rights Watch and the Harvard clinic said.

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December 3, 2013

A Month of Disarmament Milestones: From Cluster Munitions to Killer Robots

Posted by Bonnie Docherty

Five years ago this week, 94 countries gathered in Oslo to sign the Convention on Cluster Munitions. The historic ceremony, held in the hall where the Nobel Peace Prize is awarded, was a moment of celebration and inspiration.

The groundbreaking treaty banned a class of weapons that cause serious harm to civilians. It also showed that humanitarian disarmament, which prioritizes humanitarian concerns over security interests, had become an established means of governing weapons.

While the anniversary of the Convention on Cluster Munitions offers an occasion to reflect on an earlier success, the past month also marked a breakthrough for those working to prevent future civilian casualties. At an international disarmament conference in Geneva, 117 countries turned their attention toward another threat: fully autonomous weapons, also known as “killer robots.” On November 15, the last day of the conference, states parties to the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) unanimously agreed to take up the issue next year.

Cluster munitions have caused civilian casualties during and after conflicts for half a century. Fully autonomous weapons, which would target and fire on targets without meaningful human intervention, might do the same over the coming decades. They do not exist yet, but technology is moving rapidly in their direction.

The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, a coalition of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) coordinated by Human Rights Watch, has called for a preemptive prohibition of fully autonomous weapons because of their potential to revolutionize warfare and endanger civilians. The International Human Rights Clinic has supported its efforts through several joint advocacy publications with Human Rights Watch, including one released at CCW in November.

CCW is usually a slow-moving forum so the forthcoming discussions do not mean a treaty banning fully autonomous weapons will be negotiated in 2014. But the fact that parties to the convention, including such military powers as China, Russia, and the United States, have acknowledged the importance of the issue is truly remarkable. It is a tribute in large part to the effort of advocates working on the issue, including the Clinic’s students. Continue Reading…

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June 8, 2012

“White Phosphorous: The New Napalm?”

Posted by Cara Solomon

On the 40th anniversary of one of the most iconic images to come out of the Vietnam War, Bonnie and Steve Goose of Human Rights Watch have co-authored an important piece in Salon about the lingering threat posed by incendiary weapons.

Here are the first few paragraphs:

“Too hot! Too hot!” wailed 9-year-old Kim Phuc as sticky napalm burned through her clothes and skin. Forty years ago this week, Kim Phuc was photographed running down the road away from her burning village after a South Vietnamese plane dropped incendiary weapons.

The photograph, taken by Huynh Cong “Nick” Ut for Associated Press on June 8, 1972, became emblematic of the terrible impact on civilians of the U.S.-led bombing campaigns over Southeast Asia.

In the decade that followed, the shocking consequences that napalm inflicted on civilians in Vietnam and elsewhere became a major factor motivating adoption of a new international law restricting the use of some incendiary weapons. But that law, Protocol III to the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW), has failed to live up to its promise.

Today, children continue to endure the devastating impacts of incendiary weapons. It is time for governments to revisit CCW Protocol III and strengthen existing law to minimize that suffering.

Click here for the rest of the article.

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August 23, 2011

Strengthening the Humanitarian Protections of Incendiary Weapons Treaty

Posted by Bonnie Docherty

In the latest step of our push for stronger international law on incendiary weapons, the International Human Rights Clinic and Human Rights Watch (HRW)  released recommendations yesterday for amending an existing protocol on the weapons.

The new paper calls on states parties to the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) to close several loopholes in CCW’s Protocol III.  The paper recommends broadening the definition of “incendiary weapon” to cover all munitions with incendiary effects, including white phosphorus.  It also argues that while an absolute ban would have the greatest humanitarian impact, countries should at least prohibit the use of incendiary weapons in populated areas and consider outlawing use against people, whether civilian or soldier.

In earlier papers, the Clinic and HRW outlined the shortcomings of Protocol III and described the humanitarian suffering produced by incendiary weapons. Incendiary weapons cause cruel, conscience-shocking injuries such as severe burns, asphyxiation, disfigurement, and psychological trauma, as well as death.

Joanne Box, LLM ’11, Alan Cliff, JD ’11, and Joe Phillips, JD ’12, helped develop the team’s recommendations and drafted the paper being distributed at a conference of CCW states parties in Geneva this week.

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April 8, 2011

Pressure Mounts for Stronger Incendiary Weapons Treaty

Posted by Bonnie Docherty

The International Human Rights Clinic and Human Rights Watch (HRW) lobbied at a UN disarmament conference in Geneva last week for stronger international law on incendiary weapons.  The Clinic has previously presented the legal arguments for more robust protections; this time, we focused on the suffering these weapons cause to civilians.

Behind the scenes, diplomats at the meeting of the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) responded positively to our paper and our presentation, and they were visibly moved by the photographs and testimony we provided.  The next step is to get their public support for the critical protections.

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