Incendiary weapons condemned again


More than a dozen states have called for international law on incendiary weapons to be reviewed and strengthened in light of civilian casualties, particularly in Syria. Despite these statements and letters, no concrete action has been undertaken yet to address incendiary weapons concerns beyond condemning their use.

Protocol III of the 1980 Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) bans the use of air-delivered incendiary weapons in areas with “concentrations of civilians” and has been ratified by 112 countries, including all five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. Sri Lanka’s Ambassador Ravinath Aryasinha chaired the CCW’s annual meeting of states at the United Nations in Geneva on 9-13 November 2015, where incendiary weapons concerns were raised.

In advance of the meeting, Human Rights Watch and Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic issued a five-year review on developments relating to incendiary weapons–particularly evidence of recent use in Syria and Ukraine, as well as allegations of use in Libya and Yemen–and the evolution of countries’ policies and positions on incendiary weapons. They called on states to agree to a new CCW mandate that sets aside time to discuss the implementation and adequacy of the protocol, flagging the CCW’s Fifth Review Conference in December 2016 as a key milestone for taking action.

During the annual meeting, sixteen states elaborated their views on incendiary weapons:

  • Austria expressed concerned at new use and said it supports revisiting Protocol III to discuss ways to strengthen it;
  • Bulgaria expressed concern at new use, which it said shows the need for compliance with and universalization of Protocol III;
  • Colombia condemned recent use of incendiary weapons, which it said have excessively injurious effects;
  • Costa Rica condemned recent use of incendiary weapons and called for Protocol III to be strengthened and its definition expanded to include white phosphorus;
  • Croatia condemned recent use of incendiary weapons in Syria and Ukraine as well as allegations of use in Libya and Yemen and reiterated its support for strengthening Protocol III;
  • Ecuador condemned the use of incendiary weapons and expressed support for discussions to strengthen and amend Protocol III;
  • France condemned the recent use in Syria and called on the government of Syria to accede to CCW and Protocol III;
  • Holy See called for the CCW to establish a Group of Governmental Experts to address incendiary weapons concerns;
  • India said it is important to keep Protocol III under review;
  • Ireland expressed concern at recent reported use of incendiary weapons and reiterated the need for all parties to “comply strictly” with CCW Protocol III. It urged states to consider the protocol’s “applicability and relevance” at next year’s Review Conference;
  • Montenegro expressed deep concern at the use of incendiary weapons and said it was open to discussing Protocol III;
  • Russia said it hears NGO appeals to strengthen Protocol III, but the solution depends on compliance with existing international humanitarian law;
  • Slovenia proposed strengthening Protocol III to address the humanitarian consequences of their use and affirmed that it has never possessed, produced, or used incendiary weapons, including white phosphorus;
  • Switzerland expressed concern at the harm caused by incendiary weapons and called for a review of Protocol III’s scope and operation;
  • The United States said it remains concerned by and condemns the indiscriminate use of incendiary weapons, which it said shows the importance of ensuring compliance and universalization with Protocol III;
  • Zambia said it is concerned at the harm caused by incendiary weapons and condemns use. It supported measures to strengthen Protocol III and affirmed that an absolute ban would afford greatest humanitarian impact.

At the CCW meeting, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) called for a review of the operation and status of Protocol III as well as for states to report on their national policies and operational practices. It also requested discussion on measures to avoid the foreseeable indiscriminate effects of munitions that have incidental incendiary effects, such as white phosphorus. Article 36 and PAX joined Human Rights Watch in calling on states to condemn the use of incendiary weapons and take steps to urgently strengthen the incendiary weapons protocol, which has never been reviewed in its 35 years of existence.

The final report of the 2015 annual meeting contained a paragraph repeating a statement made in previous reports that, “the meeting noted the concerns raised by a number of High Contracting Parties over the allegations of use of incendiary weapons against civilians.”

While almost all speakers expressed concern at the use of incendiary weapons and many called for Protocol III to be reviewed and strengthened, Russia‘s stance appeared to hold back progress as it described any review of Protocol III as “counterproductive.” Nonetheless this marked the first time in years that Russia has responded to concerns about incendiary weapons at the CCW. In a 6 November 2015 letter to HRW, Russian’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov praised efforts to address incendiary weapons and described Protocol III as “important for the protection of civilian life and well-being.” However, he ruled out any review of the protocol, which he said in Russia’s view currently strikes a “proper balance between legitimate defense interests of states on the one hand and humanitarian considerations on the other.”

Despite the lack of progress in beginning actual deliberations on incendiary weapons, the 2015 annual meeting demonstrated how the international response to these weapons shows no sign of abating. For the fifth year in a row, the CCW report has acknowledged concerns over recent use of incendiary weapons. The 15 states that addressed incendiary weapons in their statements to the 2015 annual meeting represents an increase on the 12 states that did so in 2014 and 2013. In the past two CCW annual meetings, Canada, Germany, Ireland, Lithuania, Mexico, Netherlands, Pakistan, State of Palestine, Norway, and South Africa also expressed concern at incendiary weapons.

For more information, see:

Bonnie Docherty, author of the 2015 memo to CCW delegates on incendiary weapons (c) Human Rights Watch, 2015

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>