By Sarah Abraham, J.D. ’17; Lauren Blodgett J.D. ’16;
and Danae Paterson J.D. ‘16
Incendiary weapons rank among the cruelest means of armed conflict. Through the production of fire and heat, these weapons cause excruciating burns that are difficult to treat and can lead to long-term psychological harm and severe disfigurement. Despite the horrific effects of incendiary weapons, existing international law provides very weak protections against the use of such weapons. Protocol III of the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) purports to regulate incendiary weapons, but in reality is ineffective due to definitional loopholes and textual inconsistencies. Today, we live in a world where these weapons can essentially be used without any consequences, with recent use seen in Syria and Ukraine, and allegations of use in Libya.
As part of the International Human Rights Clinic, we were able to contribute to the fight to regulate – and ideally ban – the use of incendiary weapons. For our clinical project, we partnered with Human Rights Watch to write a memo to States Parties attending the annual CCW meeting in November 2015. The memo outlined the recent use of incendiary weapons, the horrific injuries these weapons cause, and the shortcomings of Protocol III in providing protection from incendiary weapons. The memo looked at developments surrounding incendiary weapons over the past five years and highlighted how over three dozen countries have spoken out against this issue during that time period. In light of five years of discussions and criticism surrounding incendiary weapons, our memo, “From Condemnation to Concrete Action,” called on states to take concrete steps towards strengthening Protocol III. In particular, we proposed specific amendments that State Parties could support to alter Protocol III and provide more protections for civilians.
To make our advocacy more effective, our clinical supervisor (Bonnie Docherty) and one of our team members (Sarah Abraham) travelled to Geneva to attend the CCW meeting in person. In Geneva, they reinforced the message outlined in our memo through formal and informal discussions with state delegates and civil society. Ultimately, 15 state delegates made formal, public statements addressing incendiary weapons. Many states said they were open to discussing potential amendments to Protocol III. This momentum comes at a crucial time, since next year the CCW will be holding a “Review Conference” which occurs once every five years. These review conferences have traditionally been a place for concrete action to take place. We hope that our memo has helped contribute to the push for amending Protocol III during this session.
Through this project, we learned about the importance of international law and UN treaty mechanisms for protecting civilians during armed conflict. These slow and complex processes, however, are frustrating in light of the urgency of the issue of incendiary weapons and the horrors faced by victims and survivors of these attacks. Learning how to navigate this system and be an effective advocate has been indispensible to our legal educations and has enabled us to contribute to this crucial fight against incendiary weapons.