Over the past week, allegations of the U.S. military using white phosphorus munitions in populated areas of Iraq and Syria have drawn global concern.
What Is White Phosphorus?
White phosphorus, also known as WP, is a material made from a common allotrope of the chemical element phosphorus that is used in smoke, tracer, illumination, and incendiary munitions. It ignites upon contact with oxygen and causes severe burns on almost a flammable object. Contact with human skin causes extreme second and third-degree burns, sometimes continuing to burn until the chemical reaches bone. It is needless to say that is fatal.
The controversial argument about the applications of white phosphorus in military weapons is a heated and frightening one. The prohibition of chemical weapons like WP is perhaps most famously attributed to the Geneva Conventions, most specifically Protocol I, which bans weapons that “cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering,” as well as means of warfare that “cause widespread, long-term, and severe damage to the natural environment.” This encompasses chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons just to name a few.
The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) more concisely stated the ban on chemical weapons. It started in 1980 in the United Nations Conference on Disarmament and went into effect in April 1997. The CWC is signed by over 190 countries, states, and parties all over the world. Protocol III of this document specifically prohibits the use of incendiary weapons, which is what white phosphorus is categorized as.
Despite all of these regulations against WP, it is still somewhat allowed in military operations due to this loophole: as long as it is not directly targeting personnel, it can be used as a smoke screen. This excuse was perfectly stated by Col. Ryan Dillon, the spokesman for the American-led task force that is fighting the militants, who said, “In accordance with the law of armed conflict, white phosphorus rounds are used for screening, obscuring and marking in a way that fully considers the possible incidental effects on civilians and civilian structures.”
Reassuring to know that the extremely detrimental effects of WP aren’t being denied at all, but “fully considered.”
WP in Syria and Iraq
On June 3, the Iraqi city of Mosul was showered by white phosphorus munitions. Iraqi Security forces claim that this was an attempt to shield civilians from Islamic State snipers. However, Mary Wareham, the advocacy director at Human Rights Watch’s arms division, stated that “White phosphorus should not be air burst over populated areas due to its indiscriminate effect” on civilians. This video shows the explosion over the neighborhood of Zanjili.
On June 8th and 9th, the activist group Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently posted video and images on their Twitter of what appear to be WP munitions over the city of Raqqa, Syria. According to an article by Sputnik news, “Syrian media reported that at least 43 civilians were killed as a result of the US-led coalition airstrike in Raqqa.”
A Humanitarian Crisis
It is absolutely inhumane to utilize white phosphorus bombs in an area that is obviously populated by civilians. The innocent people caught in the crossfire of war should be sheltered and guided to safety rather than being abandoned to become collateral damage of a seemingly never ending war. This incident is not the first and unfortunately will probably not be the last. Donatella Rovera, Senior Crisis Response Adviser at Amnesty International, made a statement in regards to a separate white phosphorus attack in October 2016 in Iraq:
We are urging Iraqi and coalition forces never to use white phosphorus in the vicinity of civilians. Even if civilians are not present at the time of its use, due to the residual risks they should not use air-burst white phosphorus munitions unless it is absolutely necessary to achieve military objectives which cannot be accomplished through safer means.