by
 
Sarah Leah Whitson
October 6, 2006

Both Hezbollah’s strength and popularity make it all the more important that it be held accountable for its conduct during the war. Although both the UN’s Human Rights Council and the Lebanese government have called for Israel to be held accountable for its crimes, they have not done so for Hezbollah. This failure sends Hezbollah a message that it can act with impunity while undermining the protection of civilians caught in fighting involving armed groups around the world.

The tragedy of this war – the approximately 1,000 Lebanese and 39 Israeli civilians killed and the reduction of much of southern Lebanon to rubble – is a direct product of Israel’s and Hezbollah’s utter disregard for their obligations under international humanitarian law. Human Rights Watch documented Israel’s systematic failure to discriminate between military and civilian objects in its aerial bombardment campaign, in some cases to the point of war crimes.

We also documented the fact that Hezbollah launched thousands of rockets on densely populated cities, towns and villages in Northern Israel, using a variety of unguided rockets, often referred to as “Katyushas,” which cannot be targeted at military objects with any degree of precision because of their limited technology. When firing these rockets into civilian areas, Hezbollah knew that the likelihood of hitting a military target was slim to none, while the likely result would be the death and injury of civilians. Such attacks were at best, indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas, and at worst, direct attacks against civilians. Either way, they were serious violations of international humanitarian law and probable war crimes.

Because of Hezbollah’s secrecy, little is known about the conduct of its forces inside Lebanon and whether its own actions put Lebanese civilians at risk. Human Rights Watch’s research found that on a number of occasions Hezbollah unjustifiably endangered Lebanese civilians by storing weapons in civilian homes, firing rockets from populated areas, and allowing its fighters to operate from civilian homes. Hezbollah also used children as active combatants, another violation of the law.

Hezbollah publicly defended its attacks on Israel, insisting that many of its rockets were targeted at military objects. But this does not excuse the many other rockets indiscriminately launched into civilian areas. Hezbollah also sought to justify its attacks on Israeli civilians by claiming they were legitimate reprisals under certain interpretations of Islamic law. Such statements are disappointing, to say the least, from an organization that has that has otherwise prided itself on having forced Israel to withdraw its military forces from Lebanon in 2000 without attacking civilians. They also are short-sighted: violations of international humanitarian law happen in almost every war, so if a violation by one side excused violations by another, every war would degenerate into attacks on civilians. That’s why reprisals against civilians are never permitted under international humanitarian law. Hezbollah also denied doing anything to endanger Lebanese civilians without countering specific charges that they have fought or stored weapons in civilian areas.

In the wake of the war, the United Nations Human Rights Council, primarily at the instigation of Arab and Muslim member states, moved swiftly to establish a commission of inquiry to investigate Israel’s violations of the laws of war. But in a startling display of self-defeating bias, it refused to examine Hezbollah’s conduct. That one-sided response undermined the credibility of the UN’s strongest human rights mechanism at a time when it is most needed to compensate for Lebanon’s inability or unwillingness to undertake such an investigation on its own. As a result, no official body is investigating Hezbollah’s conduct during the hostilities or demanding that Hezbollah answer for it.

As the Council follows up on this issue at its second regular session, it should unequivocally confirm that any armed group engaged in hostilities, including Hezbollah, is subject to international law which strictly prohibits any attacks on civilians, regardless of whether they are in retaliation to Israel’s unlawful attacks on Lebanese civilians. Even those who support Hezbollah and believe it has a right to resist must demand that Hezbollah fight by these rules. Failing to hold Hezbollah to account risks plunging it into complete lawlessness as a fighting force and encourages blatant disregard for basic principles of war by other armed groups.

If a green light is given to attacks on civilians, the one thing we know for sure is that the victims will hardly be limited to Israelis. As in the case of Iraq, Arabs and Muslims will be well represented. If we are to minimize the harm to civilians in such conflicts, we must not start making exceptions now. And if Hezbollah wants to be taken seriously as a legitimate force, it should be held to the same international standards that apply to forces of its kind.

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