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The United Nations should immediately launch an international investigation into civilian deaths in Lebanon and northern Israel, Human Rights Watch said today. In a letter to the U.N. Security Council today, Secretary-General Kofi Annan concluded that the effects of the conflict on civilians in Lebanon and Israel require a comprehensive investigation.

“Kofi Annan rightly recognizes the need to investigate the impact of this conflict on civilians, but that investigation won’t start by itself,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “The U.N. should waste no time in sending experts to look at the terrible toll of civilian deaths in Lebanon and northern Israel.”

In several reports in the last four weeks, Human Rights Watch has documented indiscriminate use of force against civilians by both the Israel Defense Forces and Hezbollah. Human Rights Watch researchers, investigating more than 20 attacks that killed more than 150 civilians in Lebanon, described a systematic failure by the Israeli forces to distinguish between combatants and civilians that may constitute war crimes. Human Rights Watch also accused Hezbollah of committing war crimes by deliberately and indiscriminately killing civilians by firing rockets that cannot be aimed at military targets into populated areas and killing more than 30 civilians in northern Israel.

On July 30 the Security Council asked the secretary-general to report on the circumstances of that day’s Israeli attack on the village of Qana. Based on the information he gathered, the secretary-general found that the deaths in Qana should be seen in the broader context of a possible pattern of violations of international law, including international humanitarian and human rights law, committed by both sides during this conflict.

“It’s no use looking at one incident or one side in isolation,” Roth said. “A full and fair investigation would press both parties to do more to protect civilians.”

Human Rights Watch has called for Secretary-General Annan to appoint an International Commission of Inquiry (COI) to investigate reports of violations of international humanitarian law, including possible war crimes, in Lebanon and Israel, and to make recommendations aimed at holding accountable those who violated the law. The COI should be headed by a widely-respected and impartial expert with direct experience investigating wartime compliance with the laws of war, and should be adequately funded and staffed with a team having expertise in forensics, ballistics and weaponry, and international humanitarian law.

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