A white phosphorus attack during the Vietnam War (National Museum of the U.S. Air Force)

Goodbye, Willie Pete

It’s time to stop using white phosphorus as a weapon of war. While we’re at it, let’s close the loopholes in the incendiary weapons law.


Napalm is the incendiary weapon people know best. The word alone evokes cruelty and brings back disturbing images of the Vietnam War: the iconic photograph of the naked little girl running and screaming in agony as the burnt skin on her back peels away.

Yet napalm is still fair game in war, so long as it’s used only against military targets. Another substance used as an incendiary weapon, whose reputation is catching up to napalm’s for melting flesh, is white phosphorus. And like napalm, white phosphorus is perfectly legal against military targets.

In practice, however, war zones aren’t so clearly demarcated.

Although international law bans their use in civilian areas, noncombatants, including children, continue to be maimed or killed. Human Rights Watch counted 18 attacks with incendiary weapons against civilians in Syria in nine weeks (a conservative count) and dozens more since November 2012 in Damascus, Homs, Idlib, Latakia, Aleppo and Daraa.

Recent attacks with incendiary weapons in civilian areas were also documented at least three times in eastern Ukraine in the second half of 2014, and allegations of attacks in Libya and Yemen in 2015 are being investigated.

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Those who survive are left disfigured and undergo lengthy, excruciating treatments which doctors compare to repeatedly tearing off one’s skin.

Some militants and rogue states act with impunity and intentionally strike civilians. But a shocking number of leading states, including the United States and Israel, have benefited from loopholes in the law to use incendiary weapons in war. And some of the most controversial uses involve white phosphorus.

Designed to destroy by immolation, incendiary weapons come in various forms: flame throwers, rockets, shells, grenades, bombs. Another material used, aside from napalm and white phosphorus, is thermite, which partly consists of metal powders. Although napalm hasn’t been outlawed, it’s now a pariah weapon of sorts that most states shy away from (its most recent use was in the 2003 Iraq War, when the U.S. dropped it on Iraqi soldiers).

Weapons meant to burn things or people are among the oldest tools of warfare. Flaming arrows and fire pots were common in antiquity. In the seventh century, the Byzantine Empire devised “Greek fire,” a substance deployed in naval warfare to set enemy ships alight. It could be thrown from pots or siphons, adhered to surfaces, bursted into flames and couldn’t be extinguished with water alone — much like napalm and white phosphorus.

A 12th century depiction of Greek fire (Bibliteca Nacional de Madrid)

Incendiary weapons are governed under Protocol III of The Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, which entered into force in 1983. Its goal is to restrict or outlaw the use of weapons that cause cruel and unnecessary pain. Protocol III forbids the use of incendiary weapons against civilians and against military targets in concentrations of civilians.

So far 113 states are party to Protocol III — Syria isn’t one of them (neither are Libya, Yemen or Israel). Russia, whose fighter jet on a Syrian base was recently captured on Russian television with a pair of incendiary bombs strapped to its fuselage, signed on to the law in 1982.

It’s interesting to note that although the U.S. ratified the law in 2009, it did so with a caveat that would allow for the use of incendiary weapons in civilian areas “where it is judged that such would cause fewer casualties and/or less collateral damage than alternative weapons.”

The American clause notwithstanding, the message of the convention seems fairly clear: attacks where civilians are present are in violation of international law. Yet the language of Protocol III leaves a number of gaps.

For instance, it specifies that attacks are justified if targets are isolated from noncombatants and the munitions are not delivered by air. The wording, human rights activists contend, allows for ground-delivered attacks to happen where there are women and children. The idea that attacks from the ground are more precise and avoid undesired casualties is open for debate.

Loophole number two comes from the following definition: “Incendiary weapons, do not include: munitions which may have incidental incendiary effects, such as illuminants, tracers, smoke or signaling systems.” Here, human rights activists say, the law wrongfully focuses on a weapon’s design, not what it actually does.

What this means is that munitions used for other purposes, such as white phosphorus, a substance widely used as a smoke screen to hide troops, equipment and areas, is legitimate. Never mind that it will burn through flesh down to the bone.

White phosphorus, known in the military as Willy Pete, is a substance that spontaneously ignites when exposed to oxygen. It’s luminous in the dark and within seconds bursts into a thick white cloud of smoke that can momentarily be infrared-proof, making it a particularly efficient tool for screening as well as signaling and illuminating.

Yet the material burns as long as it’s exposed to oxygen at temperatures nearing 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit (boiling water is just 212 degrees). It’s hard to extinguish, highly soluble in fat and causes deep, crater-like burns. It can asphyxiate those who inhale it, attacks mucous membranes, lungs and eyes, and can enter the bloodstream causing organ failure.

Israel used white phosphorus in air strikes against Hezbollah in 2006, killing and injuring Lebanese civilians, and again in the 2008–2009 Gaza conflict. Israel initially responded in both circumstances that its use of the substance didn’t violate international law, meaning it was launched either against military targets away from civilians or as a smoke screen. It later announced internal reviews to look at its potential misuse.

In the 2004 attack on Fallujah, Iraq, the U.S. first claimed that white phosphorus munitions were only used as an illuminant and a smoke screen, then later backpedaled and acknowledged using them to root combatants out of hiding and kill them with high explosives. Yet many civilians are said to have succumbed to white phosphorus, too.

Some of the attacks during Syria’s five-year conflict are said to have involved white phosphorus, but Human Rights Watch couldn’t verify those claims; the confirmed incendiary weapons attacks likely contained thermite. In May, the government of Azerbaijan issued a statement denouncing Armenia’s white phosphorus attacks against civilians and public places.

It’s important to note that white phosphorus is far from the only masking screen available, but its versatility and instant combustion make it tempting for militaries.

One way to protect civilians would be to reclassify white phosphorus as a chemical weapon, considering its lethal and toxic faculties. The substance isn’t listed within the Chemical Weapon Convention, even though its toxic properties are frequently used to kill or harm. Then it wouldn’t matter whether white phosphorus was used against civilians or combatants, and states could no longer hide behind technicalities that leave “in compliance with international law.”

Human Rights Watch has been appealing to nations to amend the incendiary weapons law to close the loopholes once and for all. The organization calls for wording that would account for ground-based attacks and focus on what weapons actually do rather than what they’re supposedly used for.

War is ugly — no doubt about it. The idea that nations have to iron out a consensus on acceptable ways to kill each other is grotesque. Yet international laws are created with human rights in mind to minimize combatants’ suffering, protect civilians to the extent possible and prevent repetition of the horrors from decades past.

Starting Monday, world leaders are gathering in Geneva’s Palais des Nations to attend a meeting on the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons ahead of the convention’s fifth review conference scheduled for December. It’s time to strengthen the outdated incendiary weapons law, time to address its loopholes and time to do away with white phosphorus for good.