Investigating Crimes of War: Experiences and Issues (part 3)

‘Inappropriate Munitions and Incapacitation’

By Col Des Travers (ret’d)

About the author: having served for 42 years career with the Irish Army, Des Travers’ last appointment was as Colonel, Commandant of the Military College. In his time, he served with UNFICYP (1964, 1969–70), UNIFIL (1980–82, 1984–85 and 1987–88), in Croatia (EU Monitor in 1993) and in Bosnia and Herzegovina (2000–01) before retiring in 2001.

In 2003, Travers was invited join the Institute for International Criminal Investigations based in The Hague. He later became a director at the Institute. Asked to participate in the UN Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict, the report submitted to the Human Rights Council on 30 Sep 2009 has come to be known as “The Goldstone Report”.

In my view, many weapons of various kinds in use today are unethical and ought to be unlawful also. That said, I have yet to observe any human rights organisation of repute take issue about their use or their manufacture. This concern arises especially when the weapon — or more correctly, the munition — in question has been in long term use (misuse?) in many instances since the Cold War or earlier. There seems to be an ambivalence about their manufacture and about their deployment. If they are manufactured in the West giving employment and exports — that’s okay. If they are being used in a far-off trouble-spot, “ …East of Suez…” — well, that’s ok too.

Some of these somewhat old reliables merit mention. The first is the highly effective illuminant chemical white-phosphorus (WP). Its use in signalling, especially distress signalling, is well known. However, in munitions — especially when air-dropped over a densely populated area — their use becomes problematic. This is especially so since WP as a chemical is toxic and highly volatile. Particles of WP may re-ignite days or weeks after discharge; it burns human and animal tissue to the bone; when undergoing treatment or removal can reignite and can in turn cause sickness and nausea in medical teams treating patients with such burns. Finally, one professor of medicine observed that those he treated with relatively survivable WP burns, died. He opined that the cause of death was a form of ‘toxic shock’.

WP burns victim, Gaza, Jan 2009

To test his theory, the professor was going to send tissue samples back to his university in Europe for analyses.

I failed to tell him it would be a waste of time.

Air burst WP over Gaza, Jan 2009


“This grenade is guaranteed not to kill.” (Salesperson to author)

The ‘fashionable’ idea of incapacitation as the more acceptable option (as opposed to killing) now needs a re-examination, in my view. If incapacitation means permanent or long-term incapacitation, then we have a human rights issue crying out for attention. Some examples and their consequences may be worth flagging:

● Firing a high velocity round at the lower extremities of a protester seems acceptable until one considers the full consequences, not only to the victim but to the society that must care for that victim. Such a round will turn bone into ‘biological shrapnel’, thereby inflicting serious wounding. This has a multiplier effect in a blockaded economy with limited resources and even more limited medical amenities. It has been suggested elsewhere that an incapacitated person adds a fivefold burden to the community that must care for such a victim.

● Flechettes (metal darts 50mm in length and fired in salvo from a tank shell), seem to be an appropriate anti-personnel measure. However, the design and velocity of the flechette is so determined that it tumbles when coming in contact with flesh, thereby creating significant internal injuries. It is a concern to this writer that one manufacturer in its promotional literature states that their flechettes are designed to ‘tumble’ on impact. In my view, this makes the flechette a ‘dum-dum’ projectile. Due to the salvo effect (there are 1,800 flechettes in a tank shell), if a victim is within range he/ she will usually be struck by more than one flechette. Several impacts should, in my view, produce incapacitation without the need for an evisceration effect due to ‘tumbling’.

All the aforementioned are low-end munitions in the modern military arsenal. They should and could be corrected at relatively little cost and with little tactical consequence. But first, appropriate international agencies and human rights organisations might be prompted to address these issues.

They should take heart from the Dublin Moratorium of 2008 on the use of cluster bombs. At this conference, one hundred and eight (108) countries signed the moratorium. This need arose when some 400,000 cluster bombs were dropped over South Lebanon during the Hisb’Allah conflict of 2006. Designed to explode on impact, a suspiciously high number of them (estimated at 40%) failed to do so. Previous use by the same armed force had a failure rate of 18%. Those that did not explode on impact became anti-personnel mines.

Irish Peacekeepers recall farmers lifting them with their shovels and stockpiling them on field edges. “I have to clear my field. I have to feed my family” one farmer said, when told of the risks he was taking.

[There will be a number of follow on instalments to this posting: Part 4 will discuss the issue of “Mowing the Lawn”.]




IDFOC enables current and former officers of the Irish Defence Forces to connect in order to pursue opportunities of mutual benefit, support and friendship.

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IDFOC enables current and former officers of the Irish Defence Forces to connect in order to pursue opportunities of mutual benefit, support and friendship.

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