Countries Should Bolster Law on Incendiary Weapons

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An incendiary weapon falls in Eastern Ghouta on the outskirts of Damascus, Syria, on March 23, 2018.
© 2018 HAMZA AL-AJWEH/AFP via Getty Images

As a major United Nations disarmament conference is set to be held in Geneva from December 13-17, healthcare professionals and burn survivor organizations from around the world are adding a compelling voice to the diplomatic debate around incendiary weapons.

Members of these groups, who best understand the cruel effects of incendiary weapons, have signed an open letter urging governments to reevaluate and strengthen international law on these weapons, which burn people and set fire to civilian structures and property. Those who have treated or experienced burn injuries bring a unique authority to the call for more robust law.

Incendiary weapons inflict excruciating burns and respiratory damage. They can cause lifelong physical disability, psychological suffering, and socioeconomic harm. Christine Collins, who signed the letter, served as a United States military trauma nurse in Afghanistan where she cared for Razia, an 8-year-old survivor of a white phosphorous attack. Collins recalled that Razia had burns over about 45 percent of her body and faced harrowing psychological impacts.

Protocol III to the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) regulates incendiary weapons but has failed to achieve its humanitarian goal of protecting civilians from the weapons’ harmful effects due to two loopholes. It excludes multipurpose munitions, like white phosphorus, from its definition, and has weaker regulations for ground-launched versus air-dropped incendiary weapons. These loopholes could be closed with simple legal amendments.

Countries that are party to the convention will discuss Protocol III next week at their five-year Review Conference. While many governments favor revisiting the protocol, they need to overcome the opposition of a few major military powers that could block progress under the CCW’s rules of consensus.

To help ensure the debate centers on people and not politics, more healthcare professionals and burn survivor organizations should join their colleagues’ letter in the coming days and urge states to heed their call at the conference. As the letter says, “addressing incendiary weapons at the international level is a humanitarian imperative.”     

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