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Blog: Incendiary Weapons

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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February 25, 2011

Decades after Dresden, We Must Do More to Protect Civilians from Incendiary Weapons

Posted by Joe Phillips, JD '12

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.

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