A fascinating post on the Lawfare blog on 26th November follows reports that Turkey used white phosphorus munitions during its military operations in Syria. It says that many of the reports on the use of white phosphorus are overly broad, confusing it with either a “chemical” weapon or an “incendiary” weapon, and at least one article suggested it as a “banned” weapon – the article explaining why it is not any of these. Instead, the article argues that its use raises several legal issues that remain poorly understood. The article says that, as a starting position, white phosphorus munitions are a lawful weapon that can be used against the enemy consistent with the normal laws of targeting but, like any otherwise lawful weapon, they can be used in numerous unlawful manners, such as to specifically target civilians or launch attacks indiscriminately. The article also provides a brief explanation, saying that white phosphorous, aka tetraphosphorus, is a toxic, colourless, white or yellow waxy solid with a garlic-like odour. It does not occur naturally and is manufactured from phosphate rocks. It ignites when it reacts with oxygen, producing thick clouds of white smoke and reaching temperatures high enough to burn through metal. The article calls on a focus on the use of weapons, and actions of the military, rather on the weapons themselves, if one is to properly determine if a war crime has been committed.
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