Why the use of thermobaric weapons is a war crime

The weapons have been condemned by several international organizations.
Loukia Papadopoulos
Blast from a U.S. Navy fuel–air explosive used against a decommissioned shipU.S. Navy Naval Museum of Armament and Technology/Wikimedia

On Monday, human rights groups and Ukraine's ambassador to the United States accused Russia of using thermobaric weapons, also known as vacuum bombs, on Ukraine's civilians, according to a report by Reuters.

These weapons have been condemned by several international organizations. Why?

How thermobaric weapons work

A vacuum bomb, or thermobaric weapon, uses up oxygen from the surrounding air to produce a high-temperature explosion of significantly longer duration than that of a traditional blast. It is so powerful that it can instantaneously vaporize human bodies.

Thermobaric weapons basically suck the air out of the lungs of anyone unfortunate enough to be within their range of explosion. They function on a combination of heat and pressure and take inspiration from coal mine explosions.

These devastating accidents often produce clouds of gas or fine particles that erupt into flames. Thermobaric weapons reproduce these circumstances, releasing a fine cloud of explosive material throughout the intended target.

This material is then ignited with disastrous consequences. The resulting heat and pressure that come from vacuum bombs are absolutely destructive. Soldiers or civilians hit with these weapons could have the air removed from their bodies and their internal organs damaged beyond repair.  

Are they being used in Ukraine?

Russian forces who were laying siege to the city of Grozny back in 2000 made use of these horrible weapons so there is a likelihood that they would be using them again. Oksana Markarova, Ukraine's ambassador to the United States, seemed convinced that they were, according to Reuters.

"They used the vacuum bomb today," Markarova said in a meeting with lawmakers. "...The devastation that Russia is trying to inflict on Ukraine is large."

For now, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told a press briefing she had seen reports of the weapons being used but had no absolute confirmation as of yet. "If that were true, it would potentially be a war crime," she added.

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