Photo above: Palestinian victims of Israeli war crimes
Scare stories have been circulating for a while in Western media that the Russians were preparing to use thermobaric weapons against Ukraine, and on 10 March the UK Ministry of Defence confirms that Russia had indeed “done the dirty”.
What’s more, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg confirmed that the Russians had attacked Ukraine with anti-personnel cluster bombs, which kill indiscriminately and are banned under international law. He said that in addition to cluster bombs, Russia has used other banned weapons in Ukraine. “We have seen the use of cluster bombs, and we have seen reports of use of other types of weapons which would be in violation of international law,” he said, without saying what they actually were.
Anti-personnel cluster munitions are rockets, missiles, artillery shells and bombs that deploy a large number of small explosives over a wide area, intended to attack infantry formations. The Convention on Cluster Munitions, a treaty banning such weapons, took effect in August 2010.
NATO forces used cluster bombs during the Kosovo war in 1999, and the US dropped more than 1,000 cluster bombs in Afghanistan from October 2001 to March 2002, according to Human Rights Watch.
Israel used cluster bombs in the 1973 Yom Kippur War and its 1978 invasion of Lebanon and during the first Lebanon war in 1982. The apartheid state was especially criticised for its widespread use of the bombs during the 2006 Second Lebanon War which were left scattered around the countryside for curious children to pick up.
So nothing new about the usual evil suspects using cluster bombs.
The Radio Free Europe website reported that the UK had accused Russia of deploying thermobaric weapons systems in Ukraine, raising fears there could be an escalation of damage and deaths as Moscow intensifies its assault on major civilian centres. “How far Putin will go, what weapons he will authorise to achieve his ultimate aim, is unknown but we’ve seen the use of massive amounts of artillery. We’ve seen the deployment of thermobaric artillery weapon systems and we worry how broad those could go,” UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said earlier this month during a visit to NATO ally Estonia. He didn’t elaborate.
Ukraine’s government and human rights groups had already accused Russia of possibly using thermobaric weapons, while some military experts were saying video footage seemed to show Russian military equipment capable of launching such weapons entering Ukraine during the invasion. Russia hasn’t commented.
Horrific but not banned
Thermobaric weapons, sometimes called “vacuum bombs”, suck in oxygen from the surrounding air to generate a higher-temperature explosion than conventional bombs. Though not illegal, their usage is controversial because they are much more destructive than conventional explosives of similar size and have a devastating effect on anyone caught in their blast radius. The US used them in Vietnam and again in Afghanistan to destroy mountain caves where militants were hiding.
Russia used them in its war in Chechnya in 1999 and was condemned by Human Rights Watch for doing so. Russian-made thermobaric weapons also were reportedly used in the Syrian civil war by the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
BBC News reported recently that in 2003 the US tested a 9,800kg bomb called Moab (officially standing for Massive Ordnance Air Burst but nicknamed the “Mother of all bombs”). Four years later, Russia developed a similar device, the “Father of all bombs” which created an explosion equivalent to a 44-tonne conventional bomb and was claimed to be bigger than Moab and the biggest non-nuclear explosive device in the world. Its blast radius is 300 metres and the blast and pressure wave is said to have a similar effect as a small nuclear device.
Given their devastating impact, and their usefulness against defenders dug into buildings or bunkers, “vacuum” bombs have mainly been used in urban environments and against underground targets.
Battlefield thermobaric devices generally detonate in two stages: a small blast creates a cloud of explosive material, which is then ignited with devastating effect.
These horrific weapons are not actually banned but using them on civilian populations in built-up areas, schools or hospitals could be regarded as a war crime under the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907. And I read somewhere that according to the Geneva Conventions (Protocol on Non-Detectable Fragments) “it is prohibited to use any weapon the primary effect of which is to injure by fragments which in the human body escape detection by X-rays”. International Criminal Court prosecutor Karim Khan has said his court will investigate possible war crimes in Ukraine.
“A new generation of weapons was being tested… they are outside established conventions of war’
It has long been suspected that they’ve been used on Palestinians. In 2006 doctors in Lebanon and Gaza were saying: “We never saw before wounds and corpses like those that arrive in the ward…” The majority of victims were women, children, and elders caught in Israeli attacks in the street, in the market place and at home.
What doctors saw led them to believe that a new generation of weapons was being tested. Common to all the victims was the lack of visible wounds, but they had serious internal edema (swelling) and haemorrhage with loss of blood from all orifices. All the bodies had a covering of dark powder making them look black, but they were not burnt. Clothes and hair weren’t damaged or burnt either.
Electron microscope scans showed the presence of phosphorous, iron and magnesium at below normally detectable levels. Elements that are used as additives to boost the blast of thermobaric (fuel-air energy) bombs and grenades were found on skin samples, but none of these could be seen by instruments normally used in hospitals and emergency wards.
Back in 2008, following reports on the Global Security website, I wrote that the thermobaric overpressure blast leaves no fragments or shrapnel on or in the victims’ bodies, making it all the more difficult to provide proper care for the injured. “This fact already puts them outside established conventions of war, regardless of whether they are used against military or civilians,” said the doctors.
As to the actual affects on the human body, these are devastating. “Those near the ignition point are obliterated. Those at the fringe are likely to suffer many internal, and thus invisible injuries, including burst eardrums and crushed inner ear organs, severe concussions, ruptured lungs, and internal organs, and possibly blindness. The destruction, death, and injury are caused by the blast wave,” said one report.
Another report, in Defense Technology, said: “Each tissue type… is compressed, stretched, sheared or disintegrated by overload according to its material properties. Internal organs that contain air (sinuses, ears, lungs and intestines) are particularly vulnerable to blast.”
The immediate suspicion was the US had supplied its bosom-pal Israel with these horrendous weapons knowing perfectly well they’d use them against women and children packed like sardines inside Gaza.
“Six rounds in three seconds… I thought this thing was sick”
Back then the US was using dinky 40mm thermobaric grenades developed for the “war against terror” in Afghanistan. Are they, by any chance, the ones that found their way into Gaza? These little beauties produce “a thermobaric overpressure blast rather than fragmentation. As a result of the thermobaric reaction, all enemy personnel within the effective radius will suffer lethal effects as opposed to the conventional fragmentation round.”
The grenades look like cannon shells and are fired from a lumpy, aggressive looking shoulder weapon with a multi-chambered revolving cylinder. “You can put six rounds on target in under three seconds,” one Marine Corps corporal said. “I thought this thing was sick.” Just the job, then, for eliminating Qassam Brigade rocketeers and their families and friends and anyone else who happens to get in the way.
Putin is happily and carelessly causing pointless death and destruction in Ukraine so no-one should be surprised if he’s gone thermo-barbaric. Israel is happily and carelessly causing pointless death and destruction in the Holy Land so no-one should be surprised if that vile apartheid state is employing thermo-barbaric devices against the indigenous Palestinians. And the US is happily causing mega-destruction and industrial-scale death in their various foreign adventures and is serially thermo-barbaric.
Thankfully, here in Britain we seem to be a bit more queasy about prohibited weaponry than our thermo-barbaric allies. Rumour has it that our enlightened government has opted for “enhanced blast explosives technology”, which is designed to fully comply with international humanitarian law. How thoughtful. Let’s hope women, children and old folk on the receiving end appreciate the subtle difference.
This is as near as Britain gets these days to taking a moral lead.
Humanitarian law applied to some, not others
And let’s not forget Israel’s blatant use of white phosphorus against the Palestinians. A Human Rights Watch report in 2009 documents the apartheid state’s extensive use of white phosphorus munitions during its 22-day military operations in Gaza, from 27 December 2008 to 18 January 2009, named Operation Cast Lead. Based on in-depth investigations in Gaza, the report concludes that the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) repeatedly exploded white phosphorus munitions in the air over populated areas, killing and injuring civilians, and damaging civilian structures, including a school, a market, a humanitarian aid warehouse and a hospital.
White phosphorus munitions did not kill the most civilians in Gaza – many more died from missiles, bombs, heavy artillery, tank shells, and small arms fire – but their use in densely populated neighborhoods, including downtown Gaza City, violated international humanitarian law (the laws of war), which requires taking all feasible precautions to avoid civilian harm and prohibits indiscriminate attacks.
The unlawful use of white phosphorus was neither incidental nor accidental. It was repeated over time and in different locations, with the IDF ‘air-bursting’ the munition in populated areas up to the last days of its military operation. Even if intended as an obscurant rather than as a weapon, the IDF’s repeated firing of air-burst white phosphorus shells from 155mm artillery into densely populated areas was indiscriminate and indicates the commission of war crimes.
The dangers posed by white phosphorus to civilians were well-known to Israeli commanders, who have used the munition for many years. According to a medical report prepared during the hostilities by the ministry of health, ‘[w]hite phosphorus can cause serious injury and death when it comes into contact with the skin, is inhaled or is swallowed’. The report states that burns on less than 10 percent of the body can be fatal because of damage to the liver, kidneys and heart.
Human Rights Watch goes on to explain that international humanitarian law – the laws of war – does not ban white phosphorus munitions either as an “obscurant” to hide military operations or as an incendiary weapon. “Its use nonetheless remains regulated by laws-of-war rules on the conduct of hostilities, restrictions that limit the use of all weapons in order to minimise harm to civilians and civilian property. Moreover, particular aspects of white phosphorus munitions – its incendiary effect that causes horrific burns and its wide dispersal when air-burst – raises additional international law concerns.”
The 15 January Israeli shelling of Tel al-Hawa also hit the compound of the Al-Quds Hospital, run by the Palestine Red Crescent Society. The hospital was treating about 50 patients at the time, and sheltering roughly 500 local residents who had gone there to seek shelter from the fighting. The administration building and top two floors of the main hospital building were gutted by fire caused by air-burst white phosphorus munitions. The hospital is clearly marked. So where was the International Criminal Court at the time and why wasn’t it as keen then to investigate possible war crimes by Israel against the Christian and Muslim communities in Gaza?
As The Daily Blog says in a 10 March article, “Selective Outrage“, “The news media and world leaders fall silent when Israel uses its military might to assault defenceless communities, villages and towns, not just in Palestine but elsewhere, including in Lebanon. No sanctions have been called for, let alone imposed. Instead the peace-oriented Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement has been vilified and even outlawed.”