President Bashar al-Asad
Office of the President
Dear President al-Asad,
The national command of the Ba'ath Party in Syria, to which you belong, recently expressed your country's support for the Lebanese people. Such support is no doubt partly a result of Syrian concern for the loss of civilian life and the destruction of civilian infrastructure in Lebanon.
Human Rights Watch is also extremely concerned about the price civilians are paying - on both sides of the border. We have questioned the lawfulness of Israel's attacks under international humanitarian law in light of the extremely high proportion of civilians among those killed and wounded and the devastation these attacks have caused to infrastructure essential to the civilian population. We have stressed to Israel the imperative of providing safe passage to civilians seeking to flee the fighting and for relief convoys into and out of areas affected by the fighting.
To that end, we are monitoring and reporting on Israeli abuses. We have communicated our concerns to, among others, the government of the United States, Israel's principal ally, calling on the Bush administration to use its influence to persuade Israel to comply fully with international humanitarian law.
In a similar fashion, in light of Syria's historically close relationship with Hezbollah, including reports that Syria has supplied weapons to Hezbollah, Syria has a special responsibility to raise civilian protection issues with Hezbollah leaders. Syria should urge Hezbollah forces not to undertake attacks that violate international humanitarian law.
As a preliminary matter, we urge you to remind Hezbollah that its actions as a group engaged in armed conflict subject it to the requirements of international humanitarian law. As such, it is bound to conduct hostilities in compliance with customary international humanitarian law and common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions of 1949. Hezbollah should be also reminded that its obligation to respect the provisions of humanitarian law does not depend on reciprocity; these rules should be observed even if the adversary does not do so.
In Syria's discussions with Hezbollah officials, we urge you to raise three related concerns about that organization's compliance with the requirements of international humanitarian law:
(1) Syria should call for an end to Hezbollah's repeated attacks on civilian-populated areas of northern Israel with rockets whose inability to be targeted makes them inherently indiscriminate and therefore unlawful;
(2) Syria should seek assurances from Hezbollah that the organization is not locating weapons, launching attacks, and stationing combatants in civilian structures or in or close to civilian populated areas; and
(3) Syria should stress with Hezbollah the imperative to protect the safety and security of captured Israeli combatants and to treat them at all times humanely.
(1) Indiscriminate rocket attacks
International humanitarian law permits Hezbollah to launch attacks against combatants, military installations, and other military objectives. However, targeting civilians deliberately or indiscriminately is unlawful in all circumstances, and Hezbollah must take all feasible precautions to avoid civilian harm by not attacking military objects if the anticipated harm to civilians will be disproportionate to the expected military advantage. Hezbollah's commanders must choose only such means of attack that they can direct at military targets and will minimize incidental harm to civilians. If the weapons that Hezbollah is using are so inaccurate that it cannot direct them at military targets without imposing a substantial risk of civilian harm, then it should not deploy them. Launching attacks in violation of these rules is often a war crime.
Since the start of recent hostilities between Hezbollah and Israel, Hezbollah has launched over one thousand rockets into northern Israeli towns and cities, including Haifa, Nazareth, Netanya, Kiryat Shemona, Safed, Karmiel, and Tiberias, killing 17 civilians, injuring hundreds, and damaging homes, hospitals, schools and other civilian objects. Such attacks are at best indiscriminate attacks in civilian areas and at worst the deliberate targeting of civilians. Either way, they are serious violations of international humanitarian law. Because they appear to be carried out intentionally and as a matter of policy, they probably constitute war crimes. The vast majority of these rockets, as in past conflicts, have been Katyushas, which are small, have a range limited to the immediate border area, and cannot be aimed with precision.
Human Rights Watch's investigations to date have found no evidence that these attacks were aimed at military targets. In any event, to the extent that military targets may exist in the vicinity of the areas attacked, the inherent inaccuracy of the rockets used violates the prohibition on indiscriminate attacks. Customary international law prohibits such bombardment near or in any area containing a concentration of civilians, even if there are believed to be military objectives in the area.
In a number of cases investigated by Human Rights Watch, the warheads that Hezbollah used suggest a desire to maximize harm to civilians. The rockets launched against Haifa and Nazareth contained thousands of metal ball bearings that are of no use against hardened military targets but cause great harm to civilians, lodging in their bodies. According to medical doctors we spoke with, the ball bearings and other shrapnel have increased the number and seriousness of injuries from rocket fire.
It is important to urge Hezbollah to cease using indiscriminate rockets in its fight with Israel. We hope that you will use your influence with Hezbollah to ensure that its means and methods of attack can and do discriminate between military and civilian targets and objects.
(2) Location of Military Objects and Personnel in Civilian Areas
Hezbollah also has an obligation to protect Lebanese civilians by taking all necessary precautions to protect them against the dangers resulting from armed hostilities. It must never use the presence of civilians to shield itself from attack. This requires positioning its military assets, troops, and commanders as much as possible outside of civilian facilities and populated areas. The use of human shields is a war crime.
In light of continuing allegations of improper Hezbollah positioning of weapons and fighters, we urge you to insist that Hezbollah provide public assurances that it will not locate its military personnel among the civilian population or launch attacks from or near civilian residences or infrastructure.
(3) Prohibition against Hostage-Taking and Treatment of Captured Combatants
On July 12, Hezbollah launched an attack on Israeli positions, killing three Israeli soldiers and capturing two. The targeting and capture of enemy soldiers is allowed under international humanitarian law. However captured combatants in all circumstances must be treated humanely.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nassrallah stated that Hezbollah will use the captured soldiers to negotiate the release of Palestinian, Lebanese and other Arab prisoners from Israel. The use of captives who are no longer involved in the conflict for this purpose constitutes hostage-taking. Hostage-taking as part of an armed conflict is strictly forbidden under international law, by both common Article 3 and customary international law, and is a war crime.
An intervention with Hezbollah provides you an opportunity to demonstrate that Syria is serious about protecting civilians in this war by addressing potential violations of international humanitarian law by your country's ally. As a State Party to the Geneva Conventions of 1949, you undertook "to respect and ensure respect for" those Conventions, including the provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War.
Human Rights Watch thus urges Syria to insist that Hezbollah cease deliberate and indiscriminate attacks against Israeli civilians; provide public assurances that it is not locating its combatants, or launching attacks, from or near civilian structures or areas; protect the safety and security of, and treat humanely, all captured combatants; undertake investigations to determine whether its forces have committed violations of international humanitarian law; and hold accountable any individuals found to be responsible for serious violations. Finally, we urge you to make clear that further Syrian support for Hezbollah, including any prospective supply of military assistance, will be contingent on its compliance with these demands.
Sarah Leah Whitson
Middle East and North Africa Division