The Human Cost Of Incendiary Weapons: Why Stronger International Laws Are Needed

A recent report by Human Rights Watch and Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic has revealed the horrific human costs associated with the use of incendiary weapons on civilian populations. Designed to produce fire and heat via chemical reactions with flammable substances, incendiary weapons are widely used across major conflict zones, including in Afghanistan and Syria, causing immediate and long-term physical, psychological and socioeconomic harm to victims. In the lead up to the 2021 Review Conference of the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW), the main international instrument for regulating the use of incendiary weapons, human rights groups are calling on members to take firm action against the use of these highly destructive weapons against civilians. For many years, states have voiced their concerns over the human suffering caused by these weapons. Now, it is time for such rhetoric to be turned into action.

The severe trauma and harm to human life inflicted by incendiary weapons is extremely alarming. Talking from her experiences treating victims in Syria, Dr. Roha Hallam described the situation as a “scene out of Armageddon,” noting that such weapons “cause devastating burns, and in far worse ways than any of the standard scald of fire burns.” As Human Rights Watch reports, limited access to health care in these conflict settings often serves to exacerbate the physical injuries and psychological harm caused by these weapons even further, which in turn, can have long-term socio-economic consequences.

A key barrier to achieving any major progress in governing the use of incendiary weapons lies within the CCW itself. Bonnie Docherty, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, contends thatcountries endlessly debate whether even to hold formal discussions on the weapons,” let alone propose any changes. To fix this issue, she suggests that states must be willing to “recognize the humanitarian imperative of reviewing and revising this outdated convention.”

Improving the regulation of incendiary weapons will also require states to address two major legal loopholes within Protocol III of the CCW. First, the intent-based definition of an incendiary weapon must be expanded to encompass any munitions that result in civilian harm, regardless of whether they were designed for that purpose or not. Not only is such a definition likely to be more reflective of the actual types of weapons being deployed throughout modern conflict zones, but it will also grant the CCW stronger authority to discourage and ultimately prohibit their use altogether. Secondly, states should consider strengthening restrictions on ground-launched incendiary weapons, which despite causing the same level of harm, are not prohibited to the same extent as those dropped from the air.

The use of incendiary weapons in modern warfare can be traced back to World War II when such instruments were used to destroy enemy strategic infrastructure. However, it was their employment throughout the Vietnam War that garnered the most public attention, ultimately culminating in the development of the CCW Protocol III in 1980. Whilst revered at the time as a promising step in reducing the human costs of incendiary weapons, the Protocol, as we have seen, has failed to pass the test of time, given its inability to address the harsh realities of such weapon use in the twenty-first century.

Where incendiary weapons have been used against civilian populations, as we have seen in Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere, the level of human suffering on a physical, psychological and socioeconomic level has been immense. As reverberated in Human Rights Watch and Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic’s recent report, international law as it currently exists clearly falls short in protecting innocent civilians from the cruel, ongoing harm caused by the use of these incendiary weapons. As such, in the coming months, member states must push not only for this issue to be included on the agenda of next year’s CCW Review Conference but for real progress to be made towards prohibiting the use of all incendiary weapons in civilian-populated areas.