Amid continued bombardment campaigns by the Russian forces in Ukraine, and despite all efforts to establish humanitarian corridors in the country, Russia has been accused by Ukrainian government officials of using white phosphorus bombs in its attacks in major Ukrainian cities as white clouds had allegedly appeared in the skies. Videos of the so-called usage of white phosphorus munitions have surfaced online. However, we could not independently verify these sources.
Ukrainian First Deputy Minister of Education and Science Inna Sovsun tweeted a video of an alleged Russian attack using white phosphorus munitions in Popasna, located in the Luhansk region of Ukraine. Sovsun stated that “These are incendiary chemical weapons! This is a crime against humanity! This is forbidden by the Geneva Convention! I’m afraid that civilians will suffer. They will burn alive. #NoFlyZone NOW!”
The Popasna Head of Police Oleksi Biloshytsky also claimed that the chemical weapon had been used in the city. He claimed that Russia had been using an old Nazi tactic of killing people, a tactic called the ‘flaming onion’ he wrote.
“It’s what the Nazis called a ‘flaming onion,’ and that’s what the Russcists (a combination of the words ‘Russians’ and ‘fascists’) are dropping on our towns. Indescribable suffering and fires,” he said.
Other accounts of white phosphorus have also been reported by Markiyan Lubkivsky, an official from the Ukrainian Defense Ministry. He stated that the Russians were using the same tactics they used in Syria, claiming that Putin plans to make Ukrainian cities like Aleppo. His account of the Russians using white phosphorous bombs was in the city of Lutsk in western Ukraine.
“One more terrible night, more terrible attacks on Ukraine,” he said. “The geography of Putin’s attack is becoming wider. This night Russians attacked Lutsk. Lutsk airport is almost demolished. Lutsk is in the western part of Ukraine. Russia uses phosphorus munitions, which are prohibited by international conventions. So, a lot of people are suffering every day, a lot of refugees are trying to get to Poland, to the western border — one more very hard night for Ukraine.”
What Is White Phosphorus?
White phosphorus, also known by the military slang “WP,” “Willie Pete,” and “Willie Peter,” are often used in smoke munitions and incendiary munitions as they can burn cloth, fuel, and other ammunition as it is considered pyrophoric — which means that it can ignite spontaneously upon contact with air at or below 129 degrees Fahrenheit and can continually burn at 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
This means that it can also burn human skin and bones, effectively burning people alive when they come in direct contact with the weapon. Prolonged exposure to white phosphorus, especially those that have burned through portions of the body, can leave the victim exposed to liver, heart, and kidney damage. However, some munitions utilize white phosphorus as a core component in smoke screens with lower levels of the chemical. White phosphorus is also used in fertilizers, additives in food, fireworks, pesticide, and cleaning compounds. Prolonged exposure to its smoke can also irritate the eyes and the respiratory tract, with the chemical being able to burn internally for up to 7 hours.
If, as a Ukrainian human rights group claims, the Russians used phosphorus weapons in the town of Popasna last night, that would be another war crime. The human body burns internally for up to 7 hours if phosphorus is breathed in. A filthy weapon.— John Simpson (@JohnSimpsonNews) March 13, 2022
It is due to these devastating effects that international law prohibits the use of white phosphorus munitions in civilian and heavily populated areas. According to the United Nations Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons in Geneva in 1980, incendiary weapons are forbidden to be used against civilian individuals and populations. It also specifically prohibits the use of air-delivered incendiary weapons against civilians. However, it does exempt illuminants, tracers, signaling mechanisms, and smoke munitions from being incendiary weapons.
Thus, when it is used against hardened military targets and as smoke to conceal movement or as tracer munition, it is not banned. However, when the chemical is used to deliberately target civilians, then it can be considered a war crime.
“It can constitute a war crime because of the harm it inflicts on civilians,” said Amnesty International’s Nikita White on ABC. “What’s particularly concerning with white phosphorus is that it can reignite weeks after it’s been deployed, and that means that even if it’s used where civilians aren’t present when they move back into that area, and the conflict has moved on, they may still face injuries from the use of white phosphorus,” she explained.
According to Ukrainian officials, Russian forces allegedly did use white phosphorus against civilian populations deliberately which can be considered a war crime if proven.
“The bombing of a civilian city by the Russian attackers with these weapons is a war crime and a crime against humanity according to the Rome Convention,” said Ukrainian Human Rights Ombudsman Liudmila Denisova.
In response to the allegations, Polish President Duda stated that if Russia was using these chemical weapons, it would be a “game-changer” for the entire world and said that NATO would have to convene and think seriously about how to respond.
“And for sure, the North Atlantic Alliance and its leaders, led by the United States, will have to sit at the table, and they will have to think seriously about what to do. Because then it starts to be dangerous. Not only for Europe, not only for our part of Europe or our region, for central Europe, but the whole world,” he said.
Historically, the Pentagon also acknowledged using the weapon in 2004 in Falluja. Israel also used the weapon in military operations in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead from December 2008 to January 2009. In both cases, the opposing military was the target. However, civilians were also injured in the process.
Currently, Russia has been accused of shelling civilian populations and evacuees, shelling civilians in Irpin, Mariupol, and most recently, a train of people evacuating from Donbas to Lviv. Russia has also been accused of using white phosphorus in Syria in 2005. The weapon was also used in World War II and was known to be favored by Adolf Hitler.
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