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What are White Phosphorus bombs?

  • IAS NEXT, Lucknow
  • 16, Mar 2022
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Allegations of white phosphorus munitions being used by Russia and Ukraine are emerging.

What is white phosphorus?

It is a colourless, white or yellow, waxy solid.

Occurrence: It does not occur naturally. It is manufactured using phosphate rocks.

  • It is a highly combustible substance that reacts with oxygen in the air.
  • It can catch fire at temperatures as low as 10 to 15 degrees above room temperature.
  • Due to its combustible nature, every country has strict regulations regarding its manufacturing and handling.


It is used mainly in the military, and other applications may include as a component in fertilisers, food additives and cleaning compounds. Initially, it was also used in pesticides and fireworks, but many countries have banned its use in several sectors.

Is White Phosphorus an incendiary or chemical weapon?

WP has not been categorised as an incendiary or chemical weapon by international agencies.

  • The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which is an intergovernmental organisation and the implementing body for the Chemical Weapons Convention, has not listed WP in any of the three Schedules of Chemical Weapons.

However, the United Nations considers it as an incendiary chemical.

The general regulations of Protocol III on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Incendiary Weapons may apply when it is used in military actions.

  • Protocol III specifically mentions it is not applicable on munitions that are illuminants, tracers, smoke or signalling systems thus making it confusing for many if the use of WP can be considered a war crime or not. Protocol III specifically does not ban the use of White Phosphorous in military action. It only restricts its use near the civilian population.


The main reason behind WP being considered incendiary is its effect on humans.

  • When WP comes in contact with the human skin, it can cause both thermal and chemical burns.
  • It can produce several chemicals when it comes in contact with the skin, such as phosphorus pentoxide that reacts with water in the skin and produces phosphoric acid that is highly corrosive.

About OPCW:

  1. It is an international organization established by the Chemical Weapons Convention, 1997 to implement and enforce the terms of the non-proliferation treaty, which prohibits the use, stockpiling, or transfer of chemical weapons by signatory states.
  2. By the 2001 Relationship Agreement between the OPCW and the United Nations, the OPCW reports on its inspections and other activities to the UN through the office of the Secretary General.
  3. The organisation was awarded the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize “for its extensive efforts to eliminate chemical weapons”.


  • The OPCW is authorized to perform inspections to verify that signatory states are complying with the convention.

The Chemical Weapons Convention prohibits:

  1. Developing, producing, acquiring, stockpiling, or retaining chemical weapons.
  2. The direct or indirect transfer of chemical weapons.
  3. Chemical weapons use or military preparation for use.
  4. Assisting, encouraging, or inducing other states to engage in CWC-prohibited activity.
  5. The use of riot control agents “as a method of warfare.”