Lebanese authorities should investigate killings of civilians and other serious violations of international humanitarian law during last week’s fighting, Human Rights Watch said today. Lebanon’s political leaders, meeting in Qatar to try to resolve their differences, should support impartial judicial investigations and not try to shield their supporters.
Fighting that broke out on May 7, 2008 between the Hezbollah-led opposition and pro-government groups left at least 65 dead and 200 wounded, according to the Lebanese Internal Security Forces. Human Rights Watch has documented violations of international humanitarian law committed by both opposition and pro-government fighters, including attacks on civilians and civilian property.
“Armed gunmen have acted as if they’re above the law in Lebanon for far too long,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The Lebanese government should bring to justice all those who killed civilians, or who executed fighters in their custody.”
Human Rights Watch spoke to several wounded civilians who said gunmen fired on them even though they were unarmed. A preliminary investigation shows that at least 12 of those killed were not involved in the fighting.
Members of the opposition groups – Hezbollah, Amal, and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) – used small arms and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs, often referred to as B7s) in densely populated areas of Beirut. These attacks killed and wounded numerous civilians. Amal Baydoun, 59, and her son Haytham Tabbarah, 35, died on May 8 while trying to flee their Ras al-Naba` neighborhood when opposition gunmen fired an RPG in the direction of their car. Tabbarah’s two brothers were injured later that day when opposition gunmen shot at their car while they were trying to join their family in the hospital.
Opposition gunmen also detained suspected members of pro-government groups. In most cases, opposition forces transferred those they detained to the Lebanese army a few hours later, but a number of individuals were held for days in incommunicado detention. In the town of Chouweifat, Hezbollah detained four individuals suspected of being members of the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) for three days; in a subsequent television interview, those released indicated that they were treated well. However, two individuals detained in Beirut by opposition gunmen told Human Rights Watch that they were beaten and insulted: “I was detained for two hours in one of Amal’s offices in Beirut. We were approximately 18 in the room. I was beaten with the butt of a Kalashnikov. I saw others being beaten too.”
Supporters of the pro-government groups – the Future Movement and the Progressive Socialist Party – also resorted to violence against civilians and offices associated with opposition groups in areas under their control in northern Lebanon, the Beka` and the Chouf. Many of these attacks violated international humanitarian law. Hezbollah reported that PSP fighters detained two of its followers and executed them. Human Rights Watch examined photos of the two Hezbollah members showing that at least one had been shot in the head at very close range while the other appears to have had part of the skin of his forearm removed. Videos posted on youtube.com of the fighting in the northern town of Halba between armed men supporting the government and members of the opposition SSNP show wounded men, apparently belonging to the SSNP, lying on the ground being beaten and ill-treated by gunmen.
“Accounts of abuses by the gunmen are spreading like wildfire and raising tensions,” Stork said. “Unless the state acts quickly to hold the perpetrators accountable there are likely to be further reprisals.”
International humanitarian law (the laws of war) is applicable in situations of armed conflict that rise above internal disturbances and tensions such as riots or sporadic acts of violence. Applicable law includes article 3 common to the 1949 Geneva Conventions and customary international humanitarian law.
The Lebanese judicial authorities have begun investigating some attacks on civilians. A policeman involved in one of the investigations and relatives of victims expressed concern to Human Rights Watch that they had little faith in the judiciary’s ability to succeed if Lebanese party and militia leaders shielded their supporters from justice.
Following mediation by the Arab League, Lebanese leaders gathered on May 16 in Qatar to try to elect a new president, form a national unity government, and agree on a new electoral law.
“Any agreement by Lebanon’s leaders should include a commitment to support impartial judicial investigations of alleged killings and other crimes,” Stork said. “Accountability is an essential building block for any future national unity.”