HRW documents ongoing use of incendiary weapons by Russia, Assad regime in Syria

HRW documents ongoing use of incendiary weapons by Russia, Assad regime in Syria
Russia should support, not block, diplomatic talks about possible action to address the civilian harm caused by the use of incendiary weapons, Human Rights Watch said in a report released on Monday (November 11).

Issued ahead of an upcoming United Nations disarmament conference, the nine-page report, “Standing Firm against Incendiary Weapons,” co-published by Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic, highlights the weaknesses of international law regulating incendiary weapons. Such weapons can inflict severe burns, leave extensive scarring, and cause respiratory damage and psychological trauma. Incendiary weapons also start fires that destroy civilian homes, objects, and infrastructure.

“Russia’s regrettable opposition scuttled stand-alone diplomatic discussion this year on incendiary weapons,” said Bonnie Docherty, senior arms researcher at Human Rights Watch and lead author of the report. “Yet there’s a clear humanitarian imperative to deal with these cruel weapons.”

Ongoing use of incendiary weapons, including in concentrations of civilians, highlights the need for stronger international law. While the use of white phosphorus dominated discussions a decade ago, the intervening years have provided a reminder that other types of incendiary weapons are problematic as well.

According to the report Assad regime militias have been using incendiary weapons in concentrations of civilians in Syria since 2012. Incendiary weapons attacks in Syria became more frequent after Russia began joint operations with Assad regime in September 2015. Syria has not joined CCW Protocol III, but Russia is a party and legally bound by its provisions.

Since November 2012, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has identified about 150 incendiary weapons attacks by the Assad-Russian military alliance in Syria. In May-June 2019 alone, it identified 27 uses of incendiary weapons. The total number of attacks is likely much higher because some go unreported and others are not recorded by visual media so cannot be investigated.

Most of the documented incendiary weapon attacks in 2019 took place in Idlib governorate. An attack on May 25 in Khan Sheikhoun, Idlib, for example, left approximately 175,000 square meters of farmland burned, according to HRW’s analysis of satellite imagery.

HRW also documented this year six strikes in Hama governorate and one in the village of Tal Hadya near Aleppo. Ground-launched incendiary rockets account for almost all of the attacks recorded in 2019.

In 2018, two-thirds of the 30 incendiary weapons attacks documented by Human Rights Watch involved ground-launched models, but airstrikes also caused harm. For example, Syria Civil Defense reported that on March 16, 2018, an air attack with an RBK-500 bomb carrying ZAB incendiary submunitions killed at least 61 people and injured more than 200 in Kafr Batna in Eastern Ghouta.

To make these identifications, Human Rights Watch reviewed videos and photographs of the use of incendiary weapons that were taken by the general public, first responders, and activists. The organization examined testimony and additional visual material from after attacks showing the effects of incendiary weapons and the remnants they left behind. Human Rights Watch also relied on satellite imagery analysis. 

At least 11 states plus the European Union expressed concerns about or condemned the use of incendiary weapons on civilians since the beginning of the Syrian conflict. Croatia emphasized the “gruesome effects of incendiary weapons on victims” as shown in coverage of hostilities in Syria. New Zealand stated that it was “gravely concerned” about that use. These states were joined by Australia, Austria, Germany, Ireland, Mexico, Montenegro, the United Kingdom, and the European Union in their disapproval.

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