Challenging incendiary weapons
By Richard Moyes
On 8th June 2022, Richard Moyes from Article 36 moderated a webinar for diplomats and other stakeholders on incendiary weapons – which are covered by Protocol III of the UN Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW).
Coincidentally, the event took place 45 years after the adoption of the Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions, and 50 years after Nick Ut took the iconic photograph of 9-year old Phan Thi Kim Phuc running and screaming under the pain of napalm.
The webinar was organized by the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) as part of a project to implement the EU Council decision (CFSP) 2021/1694 of 21 September 2021 in support of the CCW.
Around 70 attendees followed a panel discussion and short Q and A.
- Peter Herby from “Petersburg Partnerships” set out the background and motivation behind CCW Protocol III;
- Bonnie Doherty of Human Rights Watch and Harvard Law School described the experience of victims and survivors from current patterns of use;
- Dr Wen Zhou, Legal Advisor at the ICRC, presented the legal framework, in customary law, general rules and the specific provisions of CCW Protocol III;
- Henning Weber Head of Weapons Research at ISS ESG described the challenges of Protocol III as a basis for guiding disinvestment.
The conversation painted a picture of society moving away, in revulsion, from the widespread use of incendiary weapons – but adopting specific rules, at the urging of militarized states, that maintained the formal acceptability of incendiary weapons, applied contradictory provisions, and had weak boundaries. The latter are because the rules of Protocol III do not encompass weapons that have an incendiary effect, but where this is not claimed to be the primarypurpose of the munition.
Discussions on the functioning of Protocol III have been blocked in the CCW, primarily by Russia and Cuba who have refused to allow the adoption of a specific agenda item to consider the implementation and universalization of Protocol and the challenges around that. This has created a frustrating dynamic where CCW states are not even able to dedicate meeting time to an already agreed set of rules.
Against a background of ongoing reports of incendiary weapon use, and with public and media rejection of incendiary weapons seeming to be quite instinctive, there is potential for determined action to adopt a more restrictive approach to incendiary weapons.