The legality of using white phosphorus


The legality of using white phosphorus


Human Rights Watch recently accused Israel of using white phosphorus munitions in Gaza, raising concerns about the potential risks posed to civilians.


GS – 03 (Nuclear Technology, Indigenization of Technology, Nanotechnology)

Mains Question:

Discuss the legal and ethical implications of white phosphorus munitions in armed conflicts, considering their environmental dangers and potential harm to civilians.

Dimensions of the Article:

  • White Phosphorus
  • International Humanitarian Law
  • Protocol III and Incendiary Weapons

White Phosphorus:

  • It is a pyrophoric that ignites when exposed to oxygen, producing thick, light smoke alongside an intense 815-degree Celsius heat.

(Pyrophoric substances: These are those substances which ignites very quickly i.e., under five minutes when in contact with air)

  • It serves as a crucial element in creating dense smoke screens during combat, obstructing visibility and providing cover for military maneuvers.
  • Uses: Used in Incendiary devices like grenades and artillery shells.
  • Global Status: Under the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals, the internationally agreed-upon system to standardize chemical hazard classification and communication, white phosphorus falls under “Pyrophoric solids, category 1”, which includes chemicals that catch fire “spontaneously” when exposed to air. It is among the most unstable of pyrophoric substances.
  • However, ethical concerns come to the forefront when considering the use of white phosphorus in densely populated areas. Its potential to cause severe burns and prolonged suffering necessitates a closer examination.
  • The Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) places restrictions on incendiary weapons like white phosphorus, aiming to safeguard civilians.

International Humanitarian Law:

  • White phosphorus usage falls under the purview of international humanitarian law, which seeks to minimize harm to both civilians and combatants during armed conflicts.
  • Central to this body of law are the principles of distinction and proportionality. Distinction mandates the differentiation between combatants and civilians, while proportionality ensures that military actions do not result in excessive harm to civilians in comparison to the military advantage sought.
  • Moreover, international humanitarian law explicitly prohibits indiscriminate attacks that may disproportionately harm civilians and their property.

Protocol III and Incendiary Weapons:

  • Protocol III under the CCW provides a specific framework for incendiary weapons. It defines an “incendiary weapon” as an armament primarily designed to set fire to objects or inflict burn injuries on individuals through the action of flame, heat, or a combination thereof, produced by a chemical reaction of a substance delivered on the target.
  • This definition includes an exemption for munitions that may cause unintended incendiary effects, like illuminants, tracers, smoke, or signaling systems.
  • White phosphorus munitions are primarily intended for producing illuminating and smokescreen effects, with the incendiary aspects being secondary or unintentional.
  • Consequently, they fall within the exceptions outlined in Protocol III’s definition of an “incendiary weapon.”

Way Forward:

  • The legal implications of employing white phosphorus in warfare underscore the importance of upholding international law, treaties, and protocols to reduce harm to both civilians and the environment. Breaches of these legal principles can lead to global condemnation, investigations, and potential prosecution for war crimes.
  • Strengthening Protocol III offers a binding agreement for states, preventing the exploitation of legal ambiguities. Clearer rules would facilitate enforcement, making violations more easily identifiable.


The controversy surrounding white phosphorus munitions highlights the multifaceted nature of armed conflicts, where military necessity often clashes with the imperative to protect civilians and the environment. Resolving this issue requires a concerted effort to reinforce international legal frameworks, ensuring that the use of such substances is well-regulated and in compliance with humanitarian principles. Ultimately, upholding these laws is not just a matter of legal obligation but a moral duty to safeguard human rights and the world we live in.