As Russia’s war in Ukraine enters its second month and has proved far from the formality Vladimir Putin seemed to have expected, there are growing concerns that the invading forces may resort to the use of chemical weapons to achieve victory.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy claimed at a NATO leaders’ summit in Brussels last week that white phosphorus munitions had already been fired at civilians in his country’s cities.
“By the way, phosphorus bombs were used this morning. Russian phosphorus bombs. Adults have been killed again and children have been killed again,” he said.
US President Joe Biden warned at the same gathering that chemical warfare outbreaks were “a real threat”, while NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg declared that any such action would be “a flagrant violation of international law” and “would have far-reaching consequences”. and “completely changing the nature of the conflict.”
Mr Zelensky’s comments followed Oleksiy Biloshytskiy, Deputy Chief of Kiev Police, who on Monday March 22 tweeted a video showing a smoldering missile stuck in the ground with the comment: “Another use of phosphorous munitions in Kramatorsk.”
Ukrainian officials had already accused Russia of using white phosphorus in attacks on the cities of Lutsk to the west and Popasna to the east.
Cluster munitions are also said to have been fired at Ukrainian targets since the war began on February 24, while Britain’s MoD said the Kremlin itself had admitted using thermobaric missiles.
White phosphorus is a yellowish or colorless translucent substance, waxy in texture and faintly garlicky odor that ignites immediately on contact with atmospheric oxygen, producing a light plume of smoke.
It cannot be extinguished with water and burns at up to 1,300 °C.
The acid is widely used in warfare to create smoke screens to conceal troop movements, to illuminate the battlefield at night, or to mark targets, and due to these practical uses and the fact that it is not specifically intended to affect the life systems of the body is not currently recognized as a chemical weapon under the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention.
However, it can certainly be used as an incendiary weapon to indiscriminately maim, poison, or kill, and has been known to cause instantaneous scarring of the lungs, heart, liver, and kidneys, and is capable of penetrating through the Burning muscle to the bone, often causing severe seconds, and third-degree burns, which typically require skin grafts.
“Incendiary weapons cause devastating burns in ways far worse than ordinary scald or fire burns,” Dr. Rola Hallam, a doctor who treated victims of chemical warfare in Syria, as quoted in a report by Human Rights Watch. “You can blow anything. If they can burn through metal, what hope does human flesh have?”
Protocol III of the Convention on Conventional Arms of 1980 specifically prohibits the use of white phosphorus as a weapon against civilian populations and distinguishes between combatants and non-combatants, meaning that the Protocol is only violated when the latter group is shot at.
Article 35 of Protocol I of the Geneva Conventions now provides that any weapon which causes “needless or unnecessary suffering” is prohibited, which could be used to indiscriminately fire white phosphorus and potentially constitute a war crime.
Yet it has been used as such on a number of occasions in recent years, notably by the US-led coalition in the Battle of Fallujah during the 2004 Iraq war, by Israel in Gaza in 2008-09, by Russia against the people of Aleppo in their intervention in the Syrian civil war in 2016 and in the fight against IS in Mosul in 2017.
“It’s part of the horror of war,” RAND Corporation researcher and Army veteran David Johnson lamented insider recently. “These weapons were developed for military use. And in all honesty, they will be used.”
White phosphorus was used in both World War I and World War II and was colloquially referred to as “WP” or “Willy Pete”.
His legacy can still be felt: In August 2017, a woman plucked what was believed to be a lump of amber from the wet sand on the banks of the Elbe near Hamburg and put it in her coat pocket, only for it to ignite, exposing the explosives and the pedestrian narrowly escaping serious injury .
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