Monday, November 24, 2008

On Protocol III of the CCW

Late this past September the Senate did something unusual. With very little debate and no fanfare, it ratified three protocols to 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” – the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) for short.

The Convention, together with three protocols, was completed in October 1980 and went to the Senate for ratification in March 1995. But in his letter of transmittal to the Senate, President Bill Clinton recommended that the Senate not ratify Protocol III – the Protocol on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Incendiary Weapons. (The two other protocols that were ratified in 1995 deal with “Non-Detectable Fragments” – Protocol 1 – and “Mines, Booby-Traps, and Other Devices” – Protocol 2.)

Incendiaries are defined as weapons whose primary purpose is to destroy by heat/fire. Such weapons were used in World War II when German, Japanese, and British cities were attacked. In Vietnam, napalm – a wide-area (and therefore indiscriminate) very fine jet fuel mist was used extensively. When dropped by jet aircraft, the fuel oxidizes and is then ignited. Not only does the mist incinerate whatever it touches, it also consumes all oxygen in the area of the explosion, killing any who were not burned to death.

But it was not the horrendous suffering of those who might be caught in an incendiary attack that was of concern to the Pentagon – and hence the president’s opposition to Protocol III. Remember the context: this is the period in which the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) is in Iraq looking for and destroying all of Saddam Hussein’s ballistic missile and nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons that they found. The Pentagon did not want to relinquish incendiaries because these were the only weapons capable of destroying – again by the very high temperatures generated when the mist was ignited – biological toxins. And despite the fact that no biological weapons program had been uncovered in the previous four years of UN inspections, the Pentagon was still convinced that Iraq was working on biological weapons.

This past September, the Senate took up the ratification of Protocol III and two new protocols: “Blinding Laser Weapons” (Protocol IV) and “Explosive Remnants of War” (Protocol V). But while the two new protocols went forward with no reservations, once again Protocol III, even though formally ratified, was effectively gutted by a “reservation” – the legislative equivalent of a presidential signing statement.

Under the Senate action, the U.S. claims the right to use incendiaries against military targets located in areas of civilian concentrations if the commander believes that there will be fewer civilian deaths using the incendiaries rather than other means of attack. The supposition here is that if a commander is forced to use only high explosive precision munitions he will kill more civilians in trying to destroy the military target than would be killed by incendiaries.

Back in 1980, the Pentagon didn’t have precision weapons. Thus to destroy military targets that purposefully had been located in built-up civilian areas (a violation of the law of land warfare) would require large quantities of dumb bombs that more likely than not would cause high civilian casualties (not to mention repeatedly putting U.S. pilots at risk).

But this is 2008. The Pentagon boasts of the pinpoint accuracy of its precision missiles and bombs. In this day and age, incendiaries can be presumed from the start to cause more civilian casualties when used in civilian areas. If this isn’t true, one must then wonder just how precise these “precision weapons” really are.


Anonymous dcrowe said...

Interesting. I think your dilemma catches the Pentagon hyping "precision" weapons. They're "precision" in the same sense that Tazers are "non-lethal." The marketers of said weapons try to design them to discriminate/not to kill, respectively, but they fail.

For example, of the first 50 "precision" air strikes in the opening of the Iraq war, none were successful.

4:24 PM  

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