White phosphorus, a chemical substance with various military uses, has recently come under scrutiny due to its effects on civilians in conflict zones. While not classified as a chemical weapon, white phosphorus has the potential to cause significant harm to individuals and communities when used indiscriminately. In this article, we will delve into the nature of white phosphorus, its impact on human lives, and the current international regulations governing its use.
White phosphorus is primarily dispersed in artillery shells, bombs, and rockets. Its chemical properties make it highly reactive to oxygen, resulting in intense heat and bright light when exposed. This reaction generates a thick smoke, often described as having a distinct “garlic” smell. The primary purpose of using white phosphorus is to provide a smokescreen, obscuring military operations and movements. It is particularly effective during nighttime operations or when infrared optics and weapon tracking systems need to be thwarted.
Unfortunately, the use of white phosphorus in densely populated areas poses a significant risk to civilians. When bursts in the air, white phosphorus covers a larger area, effectively masking troop movements but also increasing the potential harm to innocent bystanders. In contrast, groundburst deployments concentrate the danger zone and result in a longer-lasting smokescreen. Determining the exact duration of white phosphorus in the air is challenging, as it depends on atmospheric conditions.
The injuries caused by white phosphorus are severe and slow to heal. Burns inflicted by white phosphorus can reach the bone and often result in infections. Even if treated, fragments of the chemical may remain in the wounds, leading to reignition when exposed to oxygen. In many cases, burns covering just 10 percent of a person’s body are fatal. The long-term consequences for survivors include mobility limitations due to permanent muscle tightening, psychological trauma from the initial attack and subsequent treatments, and social exclusion due to visible scars.
Moreover, the use of white phosphorus can have widespread collateral damage. Fires caused by white phosphorus can destroy civilian structures, damage crops, and kill livestock. In conflict zones where medical resources are often scarce, the already challenging task of treating severe burns becomes even more difficult.
The international legal status of white phosphorus is a complex matter. While incendiary weapons, including those containing white phosphorus, are not explicitly banned under international humanitarian law, states are obligated to take all feasible precautions to minimize harm to civilians when using such weaponry. Protocol III of the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) addresses the use of incendiary weapons. However, its current limitations leave room for interpretation and debate.
Protocol III prohibits the airdropping of incendiary weapons in concentrations of civilians, an important step taken by Palestine and Lebanon as they ratified the protocol. However, ground-launched incendiary weapons, such as white phosphorus artillery strikes, are not explicitly prohibited, creating a significant loophole. Additionally, the protocol’s definition of incendiary weapons may not fully encompass multipurpose munitions like those containing white phosphorus if they are being used as smokescreens. As a result, further examination and potential revision of the protocol are necessary to address these gaps.
In conclusion, the use of white phosphorus in conflict zones raises grave concerns about the harm inflicted on civilians. The long-lasting effects of severe burns and the destruction caused by its fires highlight the urgent need for improved regulations and accountability. The international community must come together to ensure that the use of white phosphorus is strictly regulated to minimize civilian casualties and protect the fundamental rights of those affected by armed conflicts.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is white phosphorus?
White phosphorus is a chemical substance that ignites when exposed to oxygen, producing intense heat, bright light, and a thick smoke. It is primarily used for military purposes, such as creating smokescreens to obscure operations and interfering with infrared optics.
How is white phosphorus used?
White phosphorus is dispersed in artillery shells, bombs, and rockets. It can be groundburst or airburst, but both methods serve the purpose of providing a smokescreen to mask troop movements and thwart enemy targeting systems.
What harm does white phosphorus cause?
White phosphorus causes severe burns that are slow to heal and can reach the bone. It can also lead to respiratory damage, organ failure, and lasting psychological trauma. The fires resulting from white phosphorus use can destroy structures, damage crops, and harm livestock.
What is the status of white phosphorus under international law?
While not explicitly banned, the use of incendiary weapons, including white phosphorus munitions, requires states to take all feasible precautions to avoid harm to civilians. Protocol III of the CCW addresses incendiary weapons; however, its restrictions have significant limitations and loopholes.
What has been Israel’s past policy and practice regarding white phosphorus?
Israel has faced criticism regarding its use of white phosphorus in military operations. The recent incidents in Gaza and Lebanon, as documented by Human Rights Watch, have raised concerns about the potential violations of international humanitarian law and the need for reevaluation of regulations governing incendiary weapons.