What is white phosphorus and what does it mean that Russia may be using it in Ukraine?


London – President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy told a NATO summit on Thursday that Russia had used white phosphorus against civilians in his country.

“By the way, phosphorus bombs were used this morning. Russian phosphorus bombs. Adults were killed again, and children again,” Zelensky said.

Their use has not been independently confirmed, but the news raised concerns that Russia could escalate its tactics by unleashing a particularly destructive and disturbing breed of weapons ground invasion of the country stalled due to logistical problems and fierce Ukrainian resistance.

What is white phosphorus?

White phosphorus is a waxy chemical substance, often yellowish or colorless, that some people say smells like garlic.

It ignites instantly when in contact with oxygen, and its primary function in weapons is to burn quickly and brightly. It is used in incendiary ammunition by militaries around the world, including the United States, often to illuminate targets at night as part of tracer ammunition.

White phosphorus is also used to create smoke screens during the day as it emits a large amount of smoke when burned.

White phosphorus smoke screens
On November 6, 2004, white phosphorous smokes are fired by the US Army on the outskirts of Fallujah, Iraq, as part of an early morning patrol.

Scott Nelson/Getty Images

It can ignite fast-burning, fast-spreading fires on the ground, and once ignited, white phosphorus is extremely difficult to extinguish. The substance sticks to many surfaces, including skin and clothing.

All these characteristics make it extremely dangerous for civilians. White phosphorus can cause deep burns down to and even through the bones and can reignite after initial treatment.

“Incendiary weapons cause devastating burns in ways far worse than the usual scald or fire burns,” said Dr. Rola Hallam, a doctor who treated victims of incendiary weapons in Syria, in a report by Human Rights Watch. “They can burn anything. If they can burn metal, what hope does human flesh have?”

So is it a war crime?

Because of its incendiary effect, the use of phosphorus in war should be strictly regulated under international law – but it is not prohibited. Phosphorus is not classified as a chemical weapon under the Chemical Weapons Convention.

When used as a weapon, it can rain fire on targets, dealing random damage. It is therefore illegal to use phosphorus around civilians, as international law requires combatants to distinguish between civilian and military elements.

According to Human Rights Watch, there are documented civilian casualties from the use of white phosphorus in war zones around the world, including Syria, Afghanistan, Gaza and elsewhere.

The organization has urged world leaders to close loopholes in the international treaty on incendiary weapons or ban them outright, but claims “a small number of countries have blocked progress”.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced this week that the US estimates that “members of the Russian Armed Forces committed war crimes in Ukraine” and noted “credible reports of indiscriminate attacks and attacks deliberately targeting civilians” – but he made no mention of claims of white phosphorus use.

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