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The Protection of Civilians Has No Limits

The shouting in Lebanon has not yet stopped, but however loud, it’s still failed to drown out the undisputed fact that the Islamic Resistance’s indiscriminate, and at times deliberate, rocket attacks on civilian areas in Israel last summer constituted serious violations of the laws of war.

The argument that Israel committed “worse” atrocities makes the Islamic Resistance’s violations no less significant. That Israel violated the laws of war does not justify the Islamic Resistance’s failure to abide by such laws; that Israel carried out indiscriminate strikes on populated areas in southern Lebanon in no way justifies the Islamic Resistance’s retaliatory strikes on civilian areas in Israel. It is no doubt difficult and even painful for many in Lebanon to hear criticism of an armed group that, in the eyes of many, fought valiantly against an opponent much better funded and equipped in a war with catastrophic consequences for the civilian population. Yet even those who are supporters of the Islamic Resistance and its goals must stand ready to hold it accountable for its unlawful attacks on civilians. Insisting on turning a blind eye to the group’s violations during the war is a serious injustice to the innocent victims of this conflict, and certainly a disservice to those who hope the Islamic Resistance will serve as a disciplined, law-abiding fighting force. An attitude of “Hezbollah right or wrong” helps no one.

Many in Lebanon have criticized Human Rights Watch’s report on the Islamic Resistance. Oddly enough, most of these criticisms came before we had even issued our report. They were drawn not from the report’s contents, but rather were based simply on a news conference invitation that identified the report’s title as critical of the Islamic Resistance. Others that criticized us focused on the report’s publication ahead of the planned release next week of a follow-up report on Israeli laws of war violations, citing our critique of the Islamic Resistance “first,” ahead of Israel, as proof of our bias. These critics, including Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, conveniently overlooked the fact that Human Rights Watch one year ago published the first comprehensive report of Israeli violations of the laws of war, based on research conducted during the fighting. It concluded that Israel committed serious violations in its attacks on Lebanon. This report is in fact our second major report on the war.

Al-Manar, the Resistance-controlled satellite station, chose a wholly different tactic, what can only be called a smear campaign, to quash the report ahead of the planned press conference. It announced that “independent civil society groups would hold a demonstration to prevent the press conference from taking place,” and the hotel where the conference was to be held canceled the event. Al-Manar falsely claimed that Human Rights Watch had secretly conspired with unnamed Lebanese political parties and received secret support from them. It then proceeded to circulate obvious falsehoods about the organization and its staff, including anti-Semitic comments.

In such name-calling and invented stories, not a word of which addressed the factual findings of our report, al-Manar and like critics would be surprised to learn just how much they have in common with pro-Israel defenders who find no criticism of Israel acceptable. The parallels are striking. Comments on al-Manar’s website describe me as “a well-known Zionist activist,” while NGO Monitor, an organization committed to disparaging groups that criticize Israel, list me as “a well-known Palestine activist.” While al-Manar insists that our report is evidence of hatred of the Islamic Resistance, since publishing our report criticizing Israel’s conduct in Lebanon last year, we have endured countless attacks as “anti-Semites” who “love the Hezbollah terrorists,” citing how much “more often” we criticize Israel over the Islamic Resistance as evidence of our bias. Just today, while al-Manar is accusing us of “treason,” Gerald Steinberg of NGO Monitor published an article alleging that Human Rights Watch “officials regularly exploit the language of human rights to demonize Israel” ahead of next week’s report on Israel.

And of course, neither our Lebanese nor our Israeli critics are unique. Over the course of 29 years of reporting on violations of human rights and violations of the laws of war in more than 70 countries around the globe, Human Rights Watch has been labeled across the spectrum, as “enemies” by the US government for our exposure of abuses in Abu Ghraib, “ignorant” by the Chinese, “jihadists” by the Colombian government, and “colonial” by the British, to cite just a few examples. Yet time and time again, the facts that we meticulously and painstakingly document in our reports bring to light the injustices and suffering of the victims of unlawful warfare and human rights abuses, whatever their nationality. The challenge for all of us, however caught up in local politics and enmities, is to ensure that partisan loyalties to the group “fighting for our side” do not trump loyalty to the truth. Insisting on the obligation of parties to a conflict to, above all, protect civilians is one principle that should have no national boundaries.

Sarah Leah Whitson is director of the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch

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