Leaked documents show NATO use of white phosphorous against Afghan insurgents
White phosphorus is a napalm-like substance that burns when it comes in contact with human flesh, it sticks to the skin and continues to burn as long as there is oxygen. The result is severe and possibly lethal chemical burns.
”Like napalm, white phosphorus is, by its very nature, a weapon that is likely to cause superfluous injuries or unnecessary suffering,” – so The International Red Cross concludes in a text book (Den humanitære folket og Danmark – ’International Humanitarian Law and Denmark’) used by the Danish military.
Even so, Danish and foreign coalition forces in Afghanistan are using white phosphorus in large quantities, often in residential areas – a fact that can be established on the basis of leaked documents from Afghanistan that the Danish daily Information has obtained.
The documents are part of the socalled Afghan War Diary, but have so far been withheld by Wikileaks.
A review of the Afghan military documents reveal more than 1,100 instances where ISAF has used white phosphorus grenades, rockets and bombs. 59 of the documents have never been published before.
Many of the reports suggest that white phosphorus is used not only for legitimate purposes.
According to international conventions, including the ones signed by Denmark, the use of white phosphorus is to be restricted exclusively to areas that are not densely populated. In contrast, the leaked documents from Afghanistan indicate that often phosphorus munitions is used in populated areas, including in Helmand’s Green Zone, where the Danish troops are deployed.
The widespread use of white phosphorus by the coalition forces has prompted concern among human rights groups who fear that Afghanistan’s civilian population will be affected.
White phosphorus may not be a banned weapon, but according to the Inhumane Weapons Convention from 1980, Protocol III, signed by Denmark and most other NATO countries it is forbidden to use white phosphorous against military targets that are located in densely populated areas, »unless the military targets are clearly separated from civilians and civilian objects.«
”White phosphorus must not be used against civilians or in areas inhabited by civilians ”, Mr. Peter Vedel Kessing, a senior researcher at Denmark’s Department of Human Rights, stresses.
Amnesty International considers the use of white phosphorus to be highly problematic and calls for an investigation into NATO’s use of the substance.
”If talking about inhuman weapons makes any sense at all, white phosphorus certainly must belong to this category, since it leaves its victims in unimaginable pain,” Amnesty International’s spokesperson in Denmark, Mr. Ole Hoff Lund, points out. ”Therefore, it is important that the Danish military launches an inquiry into how and why ISAF has been using white phosphorus munitions.”
A legitimate weapon
The leaked reports from Afghanistan covers the years 2005-2009 and indicate that white phosphorus is used primarily in eastern Afghanistan along the border with Pakistan, where the war against the Taliban and other insurgent groups has been especially intensive.
But the reports also show that the substance is used in precisely those parts of Helmand which are Denmark’s area of responsibility. It is not clear from the logs, however, whether Danish troops are involved in the apparently illegal use of white phosphorous.
At the Danish Army’s Operational High Command (HOK), military lawyer Rolf Verge confirms that the Danish forces have indeed been using white phosphorus, but at the same time, he stresses that white phosphorous is used only in a lawful manner.
”The Danish forces in Afghanistan use white phosphorus as a smoke screen to blur movements of soldiers on the battlefield but also in light grenades and target-marking when Danish forces call for air support,” Rolf Verge says, stressing that ”white phosphorus will only be used against objects, never against people.”
”It would not be in accordance with our rules if Danish forces were to use white phosphorous against personel. And I also doubt that it would be consistent with the regulations applied by our coalition partners”, says Rolf Verge. ”In general, you should not use weapons that causes unnecessary suffering, and white phosphorous certainly does.”
ISAF also confirms the use of white phosphorus. In a written statemen ISAF spokesperson, Ms. Nicole R. Schwegman emphasizes that white phosphorous is ” White phosphorous is a lawful weapon used primarily for non-incendiary purposes such as illumination, screening missions, and target marking”. She admits however, that white phosphorous is also used as a attack weapon.
”If used for incendiary purposes, however, a more rigorous legal standard applies. ISAF adheres to CCW Protocol III, which places a greater emphasis on minimizing harm to civilians,” Nicole R. Schwegman says.