Reducing the Impact of War on Civilians

Smoke from white phosphorus blows along a hillside in the Koregal Valley. Photo: Adam Ferguson

The human capacity to inflict suffering on one another occupies a primary role in the history of mankind, with the use of force being the chosen method for dictators and international aggression. With the establishment of a number of international organisations over the past half-century such as the European Union and the United Nations, a growing effort is being made to limit the horrors of war. The consciences of political leaders are more frequently being called into question on the damage wreaked on ordinary people by the demands of war.

A philosophy underlying international conflict is that nations are allowed to defend themselves from threats in a way that protects the citizens and borders and to use force when necessary. The rules of war stemmed from efforts made in the late 19th century by Swiss campaigner Henry Dunant on behalf of soldiers injured and left neglected between the French and Austrian monarchs. Deeming that these young men deserved greater respect, he sought stronger regulations regarding their treatment. This campaigning went on to form the basis of the rules of war known as the ‘Geneva Conventions’ which regulated conflict between two nations. They set out requirements for states relating to their behaviour towards ordinary civilians, soldiers, and prisoners of war.

While the legal definition of protection that should be afforded to people is clear, how these rules are enforced by countries involved in conflict may be not so apparent. The implementation of good practice falls into this contradiction where armies are allowed to kill people during a war, but they must do so in a humane manner. The apparent logic of this situation is that if conflict between humans is inevitable, then it would be better to regulate for it and to reduce the amount of suffering to the lowest number of people possible: the soldiers who consented to participating in the conflict. A major issue over the past century is the weapons used to wage war, in particular weapons that inflict massive suffering and trauma to the victim and have crippling effects long after conflict is over. Cluster bombs, chemical weapons and incendiary weapons have this effect because of their indiscriminate nature. While conventional weapons like bombs and bullets can be aimed with more discretion, the small explosive charges in cluster bombs, toxic gasses and fire can’t be controlled as easily and inflict wounds that are exceptionally difficult to treat and have life-long effects.

Campaigns to end the use of weapons like these have been organised by groups such as Human Rights Watch (HRW). With a panel of detectives and academics that specialise in the rules of war, along with weapons technology experts, they carry out investigations in war zones to interview victims and eye-witnesses, as well as assessing any photography or video evidence available. Senior researcher with HRW’s arms division is Harvard law lecturer Bonnie Docherty who started working with the group in 2001. “My start date was supposed to be September 12th, 2001 so the day after 9/11. That sort of shook things up and threw whatever they had planned out the window. Six months later I was in Afghanistan researching cluster munitions which was the first major weapon I’ve worked on and as time went by I’ve expanded to working on other weapons such as incendiary weapons.”

White phosphorous rounds burst over enemy positions as US Marines try to establish a smoke screen to help their troops egress while receiving fire near Doghaka village in Musa Qala district, Helmand Province, Afghanistan, on November 7, 2010. Photo: Balazs Gardi

There are immediate, short term risks that civilians face as well as long term issues that can have a permanent effect on the minds and bodies of people as well as the environment around them. While incendiary weapons are intended to set fire to their target and can be used against military equipment, their use against humans has terrifying consequences. One such example is white phosphorus (WP); a waxy, sticky compound that burns generating thick, white clouds of smoke that can have legitimate screening purposes, like being used to reduce visibility to hide troop movements. A number of countries have WP in their arsenals, with Israel using it in Palestine and United States using it in Iraq and Afghanistan.

After seeing horrendous images emerge documenting the use of incendiary weapons during World War II and in Vietnam, pressure increased on the international community to regulate war to reduce effects on civilians. The international Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons law which was introduced to reduce their impact has been implemented, but it is not without flaws. “We argue that because white phosphorus has horrific effects where it burns to the bone and it reignites days later when it’s exposed to oxygen, the definition should be based on the effects of the weapon rather than what its design is. That’s our first concern about the international law that we’re trying to change.” While international legal measures protecting civilians have developed over time, the reality of the situation is that some countries such as Syria continue to manufacture its own weapons or rely on old Soviet-era stockpiles to target their own people as well as anti-government rebels. “In terms of the injuries and the long-term effects, the pain must be excruciating so I think there’s a strong argument that it’s as problematic for soldiers as it is for civilians.”

In a report published on the 11th of November, HRW presented new evidence outlining the indiscriminate attacking of civilians, which provides no military advantage. The testimony of Dr. Sahleyha Ahsan, a doctor who was working in a hospital north of Aleppo is included in the report. Bombs dropped by the Syrian air force had landed in the courtyard of a school, killing thirty seven people and injuring over forty others. “Three bodies were in a pickup truck outside in the hospital courtyard. These bodies, of three female students, were unrecognizable due to the severity of the burns. It was also impossible to tell that they were in fact female but I was informed by hospital staff that they were. They had been in the direct hit area of the bomb”. Docherty, author of the report commented “It’s disturbing that there’s new use. As well as that there’s ongoing use in the Ukraine and shows that urgent action is needed to address these issues. It’s not just a legacy of the Vietnam War. It’s something that’s been used today”.

Photographic and video evidence has emerged of US forces in Afghanistan using WP in both the north and south of the country. Press photographers who were embedded with troops saw WP being used repeatedly. Adam Ferguson, an Australian photographer who worked in the Korengal valley on the northern border with Pakistan talked about the attitudes of US soldiers who were fighting in the region. “I never saw any maliciousness. There’d never be anything like “oh, we’re going to burn people” or anything but “we’re just going to use it for creating a smoke screen.””

In the Helmand province in southern Afghanistan, US photographer Balazs Gardi embedded with US troops. “I did talk to soldiers back in 2006 about those ‘Willie Pete’ mortar rounds. They used them in combination with high explosive rounds; a method they called ‘shake and bake’”. The ‘shake and bake’ technique is the combination of high-explosive that causes an over-pressure effect, bursting lungs and tearing human tissue as well as setting fire to cover and hiding positions.

The level of fighting seen in the Korengal valley attracted a number of photographers and filmmakers to the area. Footage from a fire-fight in 2009 on the Donga Spar filmed from the perspective of soldiers shows an attack-helicopter patrolling above a group of coalition troops. The soldiers crouch in a small mountainside home, firing at an unseen enemy above them. Visible in the foreground is a small homestead, within a couple of hundred metres of the WP impact zone. Machine-gun fire from the helicopter is directed at the top of a ridgeline, kicking up clouds of dust before two large explosions of fire and smoke burst from the top of the hill. Long streaking pillars of bright white smoke emerge from the clouds, falling through the air; the distinctive feature of white phosphorus use.

A specialist for HRW confirmed that the footage of the attack did show evidence of white phosphorus. Docherty pointed to the risks that militaries take in using these weapons. “In terms of the injuries and the long-term effects, the pain must be excruciating so I think there’s a strong argument it’s as problematic for soldiers as it is for civilians. Our particular mandate, because of our work for Human Rights Watch we have a humanitarian approach I think it’s important for countries to remember what’s used against other troops can be used against their own troops. It has to be asked are such exceptionally cruel weapons appropriate against combatants?”

This approach of using footage is sometimes unavoidable to corroborate evidence of how wars are fought. Where possible, HRW send teams of researchers into the areas where fighting is taking place to investigate. In a recent case in the Ukraine, “Our methodology would be to go to the site, to the town and do a combination of talking to witnesses, victims and finding out their perspective and what we found in the Ukraine were pieces of incendiary weapons were left and you can corroborate the witness evidence with the physical evidence”. Where fighting is particularly fierce, the use of multiple digital sources from a range of social media sources can be used to identify exact locations and protagonists as it happens. Satellite imagery in conjunction with photographs and video can provide evidence where situations that are too dangerous for investigators to be physically present.

This new technique with modern technology empowers civilians and increases transparency. “Our preferred approach is to get our own researchers on the ground, but I think with this technology, with proper corroboration, we can document effects in real time. We want to do comprehensive reports after the war but we also want to stop things while they’re happening. The fact that we can get more access to what’s going on in the middle of hostilities where we can’t get our own researchers in is very helpful.” The rapid technological change that has occurred with the spread of publicly available technology like smart phones and internet access has challenged hegemonic power in the international sphere and is increasingly applying pressure to change military practice.

“There’s growing recognition internationally that these weapons are unacceptable. As our report outlines, there’s been a growing number of statements at places like the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) where they condemned use and we’re hoping that they’ll condemn use by Ukraine at this time. It’s also come across in Israel’s apparent decision to not to use incendiary weapons in their 2014 operations in Gaza. And obviously it used them widely in 2009, but those kinds of changes are showing that the international stigma is taking effect.”

Despite the difficult nature of the work carried out by HRW and the visible trauma inflicted on victims, Docherty stays positive about the changes that are coming about. “I’ve seen it with cluster munitions, I’ve seen it first in 2002 in Afghanistan and no one thought, well, not no-one, but prospects seemed grim that they would ever absolutely ban them, and gradually, with documentation and growing stigma and legislation we finally got an absolute ban on cluster munitions.” The international legal progress is important, the emphasis remains on those directly affected. “When you talk to these people you realise how much it matters to them, to the victims and the witnesses and it’s just a reminder that you have to be patient because it really matters to these people.”

The struggle for peace is making progress, through documentation and campaigning of powerful actors by groups such as HRW in combination with the work of deeply committed journalists such as Adam Ferguson and Balazs Gardi. The banning of particularly harmful weapons will have long-term benefits for ordinary people, soldiers and international relations and is a positive reflection on humanity in an era tarnished with violence.

Correction: Bonnie Docherty’s is a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch’s arms proliferation; not the head of the arms proliferation division, as was originally reported.