Protect Civilians from Incendiary Weapons

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Incendiary weapons fall over the city of Bakhmut, in the Donetsk region of Ukraine, on November 1, 2022.
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(Geneva, November 8, 2022) – Countries concerned by the severe injuries caused by incendiary weapons should strengthen their calls for action to address the human costs, Human Rights Watch said in a report published today. States party to the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) should revisit the issue when they convene for their annual meeting at the United Nations in Geneva, from November 16 to 18, 2022.

The 16-page report, “Unchecked Harm: The Need for Global Action on Incendiary Weapons,” produced with Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic, addresses Russia and Cuba’s opposition to a widely supported proposal by Ireland to hold diplomatic talks on Protocol III to the CCW, the only international law specifically governing incendiary weapons. The inability to hold discussions of incendiary weapons has frustrated the many countries concerned by the weapons’ humanitarian consequences.  

“The failure of countries to even discuss the effectiveness of existing law on incendiary weapons highlights the weaknesses of consensus-based diplomacy at the United Nations,” said Bonnie Docherty, senior arms researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Governments should urgently address the horrific effects of incendiary weapons and make addressing their humanitarian concerns a top priority.”  

In recent years, Human Rights Watch has documented the use of incendiary weapons in Afghanistan, Gaza, Iraq, Syria, Ukraine, and Yemen. Video and photographic evidence of strikes and remnants since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 identified at least 40 surface-launched incendiary weapons attacks. It is not possible to attribute responsibility for this use, but Russia and Ukraine both possess 122mm Grad incendiary rockets used in the attacks. The same type of 122mm Grad incendiary rockets were used in eastern Ukraine in 2014 and in Syria in 2013 to 2019.

Incendiary weapons are among the cruelest weapons in modern warfare. They contain various chemical compounds that inflict excruciating burns, respiratory damage, and psychological trauma. The burning of homes, infrastructure, and crops causes socioeconomic harm. People who survive often experience lifelong suffering.

Convention on Conventional Weapons Protocol III on Incendiary Weapons contains two loopholes that undermine its ability to protect civilians. First, the protocol’s definition does not encompass multipurpose munitions, such as those containing white phosphorous, which are not primarily designed to set fires or burn people but cause the same horrific incendiary effects. Second, while the protocol prohibits air-dropped incendiary weapons in populated areas, it has weaker regulations for the use of surface-launched incendiary weapons in those areas under certain circumstances.

Survivors, medical professionals, and civil society groups have also demanded action, Human Rights Watch and the Harvard human rights clinic said. In recent years, individuals and organizations have used open letters, online briefings, joint statements, and other means to draw greater attention to the need to strengthen international law regulating incendiary weapons.

To begin addressing the serious concerns raised by incendiary weapons, CCW states parties should hold informal consultations that at a minimum assess the adequacy of Protocol III and consider ways to create stronger international standards.

“Countries should renew their calls to dedicate diplomatic time to discussing concerns about incendiary weapons,” Docherty said. “They should remain motivated by the words of survivors to advance the protection of civilians from these cruel weapons.”

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