Nick Fallah and David Hogan, Harvard Law School International Human Rights Clinic
Incendiary weapons, which produce heat and fire through the chemical reaction of a flammable substance, cause grievous injury and long-term suffering for civilians. Protocol III of the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) prohibits and regulates certain uses of incendiary weapons, but it contains loopholes that have limited its effectiveness.
As CCW states parties prepare to discuss these weapons and Protocol III at the CCW’s Sixth Review Conference, scheduled for December 13-17, 2021, healthcare professionals and burn survivor organizations have an opportunity to add their voices, expertise, and moral authority to the debate. They should sign an open letter that calls on states to “recognize the unnecessary human cost of incendiary weapons and initiate a process to revisit and strengthen” Protocol III.
The open letter, signed to date by more than 36 individuals and organizations from 7 countries, seeks to bring the views of those who have a unique knowledge of burn injuries to the diplomatic table. According to the letter,
Those of us who are healthcare professionals, including burn specialists, understand the human impacts of such injuries and the challenges of treating them. . . . Those of us who are burn survivors or their family members have directly or indirectly experienced the effects of burn injuries and empathize with those who suffer the immediate and lifelong consequences of incendiary weapons.
As the letter explains, the harm that incendiary weapons inflict on people is nothing short of horrific. These weapons, including those with white phosphorous, can burn people to the bone or smolder inside the body. They frequently cause severe or even fatal burns over more than 15 percent, and often more than 50 percent, of a victim’s total body surface area. The pain to survivors is so great that they often must take the maximum dosage of painkilling medication, and the burns leave victims at severe risk of infection and death. A 2013 incendiary weapon attack on a school in Syria killed several students and wounded many more. The flames burned an 18-year-old student named Muhammad, covering over 85 percent of his body including half his face, neck, back, and both legs and feet. To relieve the suffering of another boy whose throat had been scorched, a doctor intubated and sedated him, although, as the doctor expected, he died within the hour.
The impacts of incendiary weapons can last a lifetime. Thick scars cause contractures, which restrict muscles and joints, impede mobility, and can stunt the growth of children. Severe pain can linger for decades, and survivors may also suffer from skin damage, excessive dryness, either hypersensitivity or loss of sensation, and a range of physical disabilities. The trauma of an attack as well as its long-term physical effects can cause lasting psychological harm, and a survivor’s injuries and scarring can make it difficult to reintegrate into society socially and economically. Long-term harm is exacerbated by the lack of specialist medical personnel in combat zones, and the lack of adequate equipment and resources even when specialists are available.
CCW Protocol III has failed to prevent this kind of harm to civilians at least in part because two loopholes weaken its prohibitions and regulations. First, the protocol’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. CCW states parties should amend Protocol III to remove these loopholes and focus the law on the weapons’ effects rather than on their primary purpose or delivery mechanism. Doing so would create stronger international norms that could influence states parties and states not party alike.
In their open letter on incendiary weapons, healthcare professionals and burn survivor organizations call on governments to “prevent further human suffering” from incendiary weapons. They recognize that “addressing incendiary weapons at the international level is a humanitarian imperative.” Experience shows that healthcare professionals and survivors can make a difference in disarmament. They played an active role in the successful campaigns to ban landmines, cluster munitions, and nuclear weapons as well as to adopt the Arms Trade Treaty. They can make a similar contribution at a critical juncture in the effort to strengthen protections against incendiary weapons. By signing onto the letter now, healthcare professionals and burn survivors can help end the devastation caused by these weapons.
For a more in-depth study of incendiary weapons, see Human Rights Watch and the Harvard Law School International Human Rights Clinic, ‘They Burn Through Everything’: The Human Cost of Incendiary Weapons and the Limits of International Law (November 2020).