Posted by Joe Phillips, JD ’12
This month marks the 66th anniversary of the World War II firebombing of Dresden, Germany—an event that demonstrated to the world the devastating power of incendiary weapons. From February 13 to 15, 1945, British and U.S. forces dropped hundreds of tons of incendiary and high explosive bombs on the mostly undefended cultural center of Dresden, where thousands of people had sought refuge from the Eastern Front. The resulting firestorm destroyed 1,600 acres of the city center and killed an estimated 25,000 to 100,000 people.
Based on his firsthand experience, Kurt Vonnegut describes the scene in his novel, Slaughterhouse-Five:
“Dresden was one big flame. The one flame ate everything organic, everything that would burn. . . . One thing was clear: Absolutely everybody in the city was supposed to be dead, regardless of what they were, and that anybody that moved in it represented a flaw in the design.”
During World War II, incendiary weapons generally brought to mind the firebombs used to destroy residential city centers. Over time, the nature of armed conflict has changed, as has the design of certain incendiary weapons, but militaries continue to use them—often at serious risk to civilians.
In 2004, the United States launched incendiary shells into the city of Fallujah, Iraq; witnesses reported seeing charred bodies of Iraqi civilians, echoing the scenes in Dresden in 1945. More recently, when Israel used white phosphorus in Gaza in 2008, the substance both injured civilians and set fire to a school, a hospital, and other non-military buildings.
The International Human Rights Clinic has worked for several years to protect civilians through campaigning for a ban on cluster munitions; now, with Human Rights Watch, we are broadening our focus to push for stronger protections from incendiary weapons. Existing law is not enough.