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US and Israel To Avoid Burning (and Mock-Burning) Civilians in Conflict Zones

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Two good-news stories in the area of compliance with humanitarian norms this week:

First, the US military has revoked the deployment of the Active Denial System, a “less-than-lethal” weapon designed for crowd control, from the Afghan theater. The weapon works by vibrating the molecules below its targets’ skin, inducing the perception of being on fire. Not so surprisingly, the deployment of ADS has been opposed by various people, not least of which were the founders of Wired Magazine. While the DOD’s Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate continues to tout the military utility of its pain beam in stability operations, other members of the defense establishment – notably those who must actually interface with the civilian population in Afghanistan – have a different sense of military necessity and proportionality.

Relatedly, BBC is reporting that Israel has agreed to restrict the use of white phosphorus in future conflicts:

The weapon has been used on battlefields to create cover for advancing troops and to flush infantry out of their positions, but human rights groups say international law bans its use in civilian areas. Burning phosphorus sticks to skin and will continue to burn flesh until the supply of oxygen is cut off.

The Israel Defense Forces used weapons containing white phosphorus during a 22-day assault on Gaza which began in December 2008. In its report to the UN, the IDF said steps would be taken in future to avoid civilian casualties.

The actual report, which I’ve not yet read, is here.

Both these developments are very good signs from a laws of war perspective. The ADS, though it’s designed to save lives, causes an unconscionable level of suffering to its victims and relies for its “humaneness” on the assumption that its targets are capable of moving out of the beam’s way. It’s nice to see that some in the military also understand that such brutality against civilians makes little strategic sense. And the military utility of white phosphorus for Israel means this decision signals some willingness to prioritize humanitarian concerns over tactical considerations – precisely what compliance with the laws of war generally requires of belligerents.

I wonder if both these decisions are a nod not only to the legal principle of avoiding unnecessary civilian suffering, but to a broader emerging stigma against the use of burning as a weapon of war – one which might ultimately apply to soldiers as well as civilians, just as nations once outlawed the use of certain bullets that cause particular suffering. This would tie both into older ethical traditions particularly rooted in Islamic ethics, and into an emerging campaign against explosive weapons which, if realized, would spare many human beings a horrible death in modern conflict zones.

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