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Allegations of white phosphorus munitions being used by Russia and Ukraine emerge: Read if it’s considered a chemical weapon and is illegal to use it during war

The main reason behind WP being considered incendiary is its effect on humans. When WP comes in contact with the human skin, it can cause both thermal and chemical burns.

Recently, Chinese mouthpiece CGTN has alleged that Ukraine used ‘banned’ White Phosphorus munitions against Russian forces.

Source: Twitter

On the other hand, the day military action was initiated by Russia against Ukraine, a few Twitter users alleged Russia used White Phosphorous munition against Ukraine at Sumy Town.

What is White Phosphorus

White phosphorous is a colourless, white or yellow, waxy solid. It does not occur naturally. It is manufactured using phosphate rocks. It smells like garlic. White phosphorous is a highly combustible substance that reacts with oxygen in the air. It can catch fire at temperatures as low as 10 to 15 degrees above room temperature. Due to its combustible nature, every country has strict regulations regarding its manufacturing and handling. It is used mainly in the military, and other applications may include as a component in fertilisers, food additives and cleaning compounds. Initially, it was also used in pesticides and fireworks, but many countries have banned its use in several sectors.

Military applications of White Phosphorus

Militaries across the globe use White Phosphorous or WP or chemical P4 in mortar shells, grenades and artillery shells. The main objective of WP shells is to provide smokescreens for troop movement, trace paths of bullets and as an incendiary (a substance that can cause a fire). When burnt, WP produces a large amount of smoke that can be used to provide a screen to friendly troops’ movement.

The smoke can also be used to mark the targets so that aircraft can drop bombs at the location. It can also be used by troops to give the signal for attack or evacuation. As it reacts with oxygen and burn at high temperatures, it is impossible to put it off. Once ignited, it will remain active till it completely burns out. In general, it can last up to 15 minutes, depending on the munitions.

Is White Phosphorus an incendiary or chemical weapon?

WP has not been categorised as an incendiary or chemical weapon by international agencies. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which is an intergovernmental organisation and the implementing body for the Chemical Weapons Convention, has not listed WP in any of the three Schedules of Chemical Weapons. However, United Nations considers it as an incendiary chemical.

United Nations has pointed out that reckless use of such chemicals in weapons have harmed civilians. Notably, the general regulations of Protocol III on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Incendiary Weapons may apply when it is used in military actions. Protocol III specifically mentions it is not applicable on munitions that are illuminants, tracers, smoke or signalling systems thus making is confusing for many if the use of WP can be considered a war crime or not. Protocol III specifically does not ban the use of White Phosphorous in military action. It only restricts its use near the civilian population.

Effects of WP on humans

The main reason behind WP being considered incendiary is its effect on humans. When WP comes in contact with the human skin, it can cause both thermal and chemical burns. It can produce several chemicals when it comes in contact with the skin, such as phosphorus pentoxide that reacts with water in the skin and produces phosphoric acid that is highly corrosive.

The burn injuries caused by WP can damage underlying tissues that delay the healing process. WP can be systematically absorbed by the body and cause damage to the internal organs. It is notably that the particles of WP may remain in the wound and reignite once they come in contact with the air while changing the bandages.

Though WP is not banned by any agency for military action against the soldiers, it is considered prohibited to be used where there is a possibility of the civilian population during the war.

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OpIndia Staff
OpIndia Staffhttps://www.opindia.com
Staff reporter at OpIndia

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