Disarmament Insight


Thursday, 22 January 2009

White Phosphorus: Setting off Firestorms of Protest

Along with the global financial crisis and Obama’s presidential inauguration, events in Gaza have occupied news headlines for the last three weeks as Israel undertook a military campaign it said was to stop Hamas’ indiscriminate rocket attacks on surrounding Israeli settlements. Despite Israel’s denial of access to international journalists to see what was happening in Gaza for themselves, reports from inside the Palestinian enclave indicate massive destruction from Israeli bombardment, and an escalating humanitarian crisis. Yesterday ‘The Times’, a British newspaper, estimated the terrible damage to the 1.5 million people in Gaza, who had nowhere to run during the conflict: 1,300 men, women, and children dead, 5,000 maimed and injured, 100,000 homeless, and 14 per cent of Gaza’s buildings damaged or destroyed.

Humanitarian agencies are now taking advantage of the Gaza cease-fire to try to deliver much-needed aid, and in due course a more detailed sense of the full scale of the suffering and devastation will come to light. The dreadful conditions in which much of the civilian population are made to live, and the fact that the majority of direct casualties from the fighting are civilians, has led to sharp criticism about the way in which the war was conducted by both Israel and Hamas.

Some incidents, such as the killing of refugees at UN schools, the bombing of the UN Relief and Works Agency’s compound with white phosphorus (burning, in the process, a large quantity of food and medical supplies), and the failure to provide medical aid to wounded civilians were particularly shocking. In a rare public rebuke, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has publicly stated with respect to one incident that it believed 'the Israeli military failed to meet its obligation under international humanitarian law to care for and evacuate the wounded' and that the delay in allowing rescue services access was 'unacceptable'.

These incidents have led to a renewed debate about Israel’s targeting decisions and weapons choices. In particular, Israel was accused of using cluster munitions, although currently there seems little evidence to support that claim. In contrast, there is ample evidence emerging that Israel used devices containing white phosphorus (WP). WP is a toxic chemical agent that ignites when exposed to air. It produces extremely high temperatures, is luminous in the dark and emits white smoke: its potential for use on the battlefield was noted as early as 1789, according to SIPRI’s 1975 report on incendiary weapons, although use was sporadic until World War I. WP was deployed extensively during World War II, and later in Vietnam. Since then WP has been used in Grozny, Chechnya (1994) and Iraq. Its use by US forces in Fallujah (2004) was the subject of much controversy.

The use of WP as an incendiary weapon (for instance, to set off firestorms like those that devastated Hamburg in 1943) is greatly restricted by 1980 Protocol III (on Incendiary Weapons) to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW). And the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention prohibits the reliance on the toxic properties of WP as a method of warfare. (A legal analysis of WP under these conventions is available here.) But phosphorous compounds are used by military forces in devices such as artillery shells as an illuminant, to mark targets, or to create a smoke screen. These uses of WP are not specifically prohibited under international law.

Nevertheless, the fallout from air-burst WP covers a wide area, as photographs from Israeli use over Gaza published in various newspapers appear to show. The danger this creates to civilians can be enormous, both through their direct contact with WP and due to the fires it causes. In contact with the skin, WP causes painful, deep chemical burn injuries that require specialized medical treatment. Burning WP is very difficult to put out, and it burns until the material is consumed or deprived of oxygen (see a film here).

Until yesterday, the Israeli authorities would neither deny nor confirm allegations of WP use, but said that all weapons their forces deployed in Gaza were used in accordance with international law. Now, they acknowledge that its troops may have used WP shells in contravention of international law.

Israel is neither a party to Protocol III to the CCW, nor to the Chemical Weapons Convention. But Israel is bound by conventional and customary international rules on the conduct of hostilities and is therefore prohibited from employing a weapon the effects of which cannot be limited as required by international humanitarian law (IHL) and which is consequently of a nature to strike combatants and civilians without distinction. Israel also has to take all feasible precautions in the choice of the weapons it uses. When incendiary weapons are used, customary law requires that 'particular care' be taken to 'avoid, and in any event to minimize, incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians and damage to civilian objects.' (Rule 84, ICRC Study on Customary International Humanitarian Law). In the opinion of NGOs like Human Rights Watch, the use of WP in densely populated areas as seen in Gaza violated this requirement.

Israel has always claimed that its use of cluster munitions in the 2006 war in Southern Lebanon did not violate international law either. And, cluster munitions were not prohibited at that time. But the hazards of cluster munition use as shown by such conflicts has since led to an international treaty banning them on the basis that the harm they cause to civilians is unacceptable – whatever their purported military utility. Although there are important differences between cluster munitions and WP, both can affect a wide area and are unable to discriminate between civilians and combatants.

The question with regard to WP should therefore not so much be whether an existing treaty prohibits every one of its many uses (incendiary, target marker or smoke screen) or whether it would in principle be permissible under existing international law. Rather, we should ask what the effects of WP on civilians and combatants really are in conflicts where they have been used. We should document these, collect victims’ statements and consult health professionals on the matter. And militaries should be expected to convincingly demonstrate why the harm WP use causes is acceptable. Arguably, WP is another case where 'the necessities of war ought to yield to the requirements of humanity'.

Maya Brehm

Reference: Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Incendiary Weapons (Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press, 1975).


Anonymous said...

Lookout for an analysis on the legality of WP use in Volume 10 of the Yearbook of International Humanitarian Law, which should be out shortly.