THE HAGUE (AP) â€” The United Nations’ chief human rights guardians have warned that the clashes between Israel and Hizbollah may be violating humanitarian law, but experts say prosecutions on either side are unlikely.
One of the fundamental principles running through international humanitarian law and the Geneva Conventions is that the targeting of civilians is prohibited. In nearly two weeks of fighting, however, Israeli attacks have killed more than 300 Lebanese civilians while Hizbollah rockets have killed 17 Israelis.
The question is, should the victims being buried by grieving relatives on both sides of the border be considered â€œcollateral damageâ€ or victims of war crimes? Horst Fischer, a professor of international law at Leiden University in the Netherlands, said that Hizbollah’s deadly hail of rockets into Israeli towns and cities such as Haifa â€” where two people were killed Sunday â€” appeared to be a war crime because their use constitutes an indiscriminate attack on civilians. â€œThey are using a weapon which in effect cannot be targeted as required by international humanitarian law,â€ he said Monday.
â€œThe only thing you know is that it kills people, you don’t know where,â€ he added.
Israel, meanwhile, would likely argue that its artillery barrage of southern Lebanon is aimed at taking out Hizbollah fighters and that civilian casualties are an unfortunate side effect.
â€œWith Israel, it would be difficult to verify that they have deliberately targeted civilians,â€ Fischer said.
He said that the shelling of Beirut’s airport may have breached humanitarian law because it did not have a clear military objective.
But, Fischer added, â€œIsrael would argue that any of the objects they attacked are military because they could potentially be used by Hizbollah.â€ Picking his way through the rubble left by Israeli artillery in southern Beirut on Sunday, UN humanitarian chief Jan Egeland condemned both sides, but called Israel’s offensive â€œdisproportionateâ€ and â€œa violation of international humanitarian lawâ€.Â UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour last week said the shelling and rocket attacks were so widespread they could land military commanders in court.
â€œThe scale of the killings in the region, and their predictability, could engage the personal criminal responsibility of those involved, particularly those in a position of command and control,â€ Arbour said.
International law mostly was drawn up in the aftermath of World War II or earlier and largely envisages battles between conventional armies, but it can still be used in the age of guerrilla warfare and the rise of international terrorism, experts say. â€œThe challenge in the war on terror is that the enemy is everywhere,â€ said David Crane, a visiting law professor at Syracuse University and former prosecutor at a UN court prosecuting atrocities in Sierra Leone. â€œYou are fighting terrorists who blend into the population, but the rules [of war] do not change. You still do not target civilians.â€ Crane and Fischer agree that even though there have been breaches of humanitarian law and possibly war crimes committed, nobody is likely to be prosecuted because neither Lebanon nor Israel has ratified the treaty that established the Hague-based International Criminal Court (ICC).
The UN Security Council could order ICC chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo to launch an investigation into the conflict, â€œBut it’s not going to happenâ€, Crane said.
â€œThe United States would veto it.â€ â€œIn my opinion, yes, there appear to have been war crimes committed related to civilians, but the reality is there won’t be any prosecutions,â€ Crane said.
Fischer agreed that any investigation would have to look at both sides in the conflict, meaning Israel would come under the microscope.
â€œIt will not happen because the Americans would not like it,â€ he said. â€œFrom their perspective it is a legitimate response to terror.â€