Incendiary Weapons

Incendiary weapons are weapons or munitions designed to set fire to objects or cause burn or respiratory injury to people through the action of flame, heat, or combination thereof, resulting from a chemical reaction of a flammable substance such as napalm or white phosphorus.

The use of incendiary weapons is heavily interlinked with concerns over the respect of international humanitarian law, particularly the prohibition of weapons that cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering and regulations to protect civilians from the effects of hostilities.

Public health and environmental concerns 

Injury caused by incendiary weapons are severe and their effects are often fatal. Victims who survive suffer from injuries that are difficult to treat and lead to long-term physical and psychological injury.

Incendiary weapons can also cause massive destruction to infrastructures and to the environment. Indeed, the fires produced by the weapon itself or ignited by it are difficult to predict and to contain. Therefore, incendiary weapons are often described as ‘area weapons’ due to their impact over a broad area.

International regulation

Efforts to address the issue of incendiary weapons started in the 1970s, notably with a growing concern over the use of napalm. In 1972, the General Assembly adopted a resolution referring to incendiary weapons as ‘a category of arms viewed with horror’ (A/RES/2932(XXVII), 1972).

In 1980, the Convention on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Certain Conventional Weapons Which May Be Deemed to Be Excessively Injurious or to Have Indiscriminate Effects was adopted with the aim to ban or restrict the use of certain types of weapons considered to cause unnecessary or unjustifiable suffering to combatants or to indiscriminately affects civilians. Protocol III of the Convention restricts the use of incendiary weapons.

The Protocol on prohibitions or restrictions on the use of incendiary weapons (Protocol III) aims at protecting civilians and civilian objects from the use of this type of weapons. It prohibits targeting civilians and restricts targeting military objects located within populated areas. The Protocol also prohibits the use of incendiary weapons on forest or other plants unless the vegetation is used to conceal military objects.”