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White Phosphorus

2023 OCT 21

Preliminary   > Science and Technology   >   Defence technology   >   Miscellaneous

Why in news?

  • Recently, global human rights organizations, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have accused the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) of using white phosphorus munitions in Gaza and Lebanon, in violation of International Humanitarian Law (IHL).

About White Phosphorus

  • White phosphorus is a pyrophoric that ignites when exposed to oxygen, producing thick, light smoke as well as intense 815-degree Celsius heat.
  • Pyrophoric substances are those which ignite spontaneously or very quickly (under five minutes) when in contact with air.
  • Under the Globally Harmonised System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals, the internationally agreed-upon system to standardise chemical hazard classification and communication, white phosphorus falls under “Pyrophoric solids, category 1”, which includes chemicals that catch fire “spontaneously” when exposed to air. It is among the most unstable of pyrophoric substances.
  • White phosphorus is dispersed in artillery shells, bombs, and rockets. It can also be delivered via felt (textile) wedges soaked in the chemical.
  • Its primary military use is as a smokescreen — used to hide troop movement on the ground. The smoke acts as a visual obscurant. White phosphorus is also known to mess with infrared optics and weapons tracking systems.
  • White phosphorus can also be used as an incendiary weapon. US forces used white phosphorus munitions during the second battle of Fallujah in Iraq in 2004, to force concealed combatants to abandon their positions.
  • Causes Severe Burns often down to the bone upon exposure, Respiratory Problems and can damage Infrastructures, crops and kill livestock, with raging fires, especially in windy conditions.
  • Irish nationalists in the late 19th century first used white phosphorus munitions, in a formulation that became known as “Fenian fire” (Fenian was an umbrella term for the Irish nationalists).
  • These munitions have since been used around the world, from the Normandy invasion in World War II and the long-drawn Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

Legal Status

  • White phosphorus munitions are not under a blanket ban, though their use is regulated under the IHL.
  • It is not considered a chemical weapon because its operational utility is primarily due to heat and smoke, rather than toxicity. Thus, its use is governed by the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW), specifically Protocol III, which deals with incendiary weapons.



Consider the following statements regarding White Phosphorus:

  1. It is a pyrophoric chemical that ignites when exposed to oxygen.
  2. It is considered as a chemical weapon and is banned internationally.

Which of the statements given above is/are correct?

(a) 1 only

(b) 2 only

(c) Both 1 and 2

(d) Neither 1 nor 2