Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Israel and Lebanon Are Committing War Crimes

The United Nations has made it crystal clear [see Note below]:

As civilian casualties mount, the UN is telling the belligerents that they might be guilty of war crimes.

UN officials are accusing both Hezbollah and Israel of violating the laws of war by using indiscriminate or excessive force.

Lebanon says that more than 380 civilians have been killed by Israeli shelling and airstrikes. At least 17 Israelis have been killed by rockets fired by Hezbollah.

Emile Lahoud, the President of Lebanon, yesterday accused Israel of using phosphorous bombs in violation of the Geneva Conventions.

Jan Egeland, the emergency relief co-ordinator for the UN, toured a bombed neighbourhood in south Beirut at the weekend. "Bombing civilian populations is wrong, destroying civilian infrastructure is wrong," he said.

"It is wrong also for Hezbollah to continue firing rockets against Israeli towns. My position is very clear -- the hostilities must stop immediately. Civilian populations are not targets. That is against the law, humanitarian law."

The UN hopes that its warnings about war crimes will help to limit further attacks against civilians.

Louise Arbour, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said: "What I've tried to do is to remind those who under international criminal law may incur personal criminal responsibility for these actions.

"Criminal law is meant to serve in part as a deterrent effect and I just want to ensure that the parties appreciate that there's that potential exposure," she told More4 News on Channel 4.

Legal experts say that although Hezbollah's capture of two Israeli soldiers falls within the laws of war, the group may be guilty of "hostage-taking," under Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions by trying to use them for a prisoner swap.

The firing of rockets at population centres across the border in Israel by Hezbollah also violates the prohibition on indiscriminate attacks in customary international law, codified in Article 51 of the First Protocol to the Geneva Conventions, the legal experts say.

The bombardment of residential areas and civilian infrastructure by Israel -- including TV towers -- falls foul of the long-accepted principle of proportionality, contained in Articles 51 and 57 of the First Protocol, they say.

That protocol also contains an outright ban on direct attacks on civilians or "civilian objects."

"A civilian minibus gets hit. In a situation like that, you ask, 'Was the attack directed specifically at that minibus or was it trying to hit a military target?'" said James Ross, a senior legal adviser for Human Rights Watch, based in New York.

"if you find no military targets in the area, then you ask, 'Were all feasible precautions taken that that was a military target?' If not, then you ask, 'Did they know it to be a civilian target?'" Human rights groups are working to gather evidence, but experts agree that no Israeli soldiers or Hezbollah guerrillas are ever likely to be prosecuted, even though a new international criminal court sits in The Hague.

Neither Israel nor Lebanon is a party to the new criminal court and it is improbable that the UN Security Council would exercise its power to refer cases to it because of opposition from the US.

The London Times also provides the relevant sections of the Geneva Conventions:

The 1949 Geneva Conventions state:

Article 48 -- Basic rule
Parties shall at all times distinguish between the civilian population and combatants and accordingly shall direct their operations only against military objectives.

Article 51 -- Protection of the civilian population
Indiscriminate attacks are prohibited. Indiscriminate attacks are:
(a) Those which are not directed at a specific military objective;
(b) Those which employ a method or means of combat which cannot be directed at a specific military objective

Among others, the following types of attacks are to be considered as indiscriminate:
(a) An attack by bombardment which treats as a single military objective a number of clearly separated and distinct military objectives located in a city, town, village or other area containing a similar concentration of civilians;
(b) An attack which may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects, or a combination thereof, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated.

NOTE: Of course, if you're Richard Cohen of the Washington Post, then the laws of war don't apply to Israel.

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