Amnesty International Accuses Israel of War Crimes – Should We Care?
As the NYT reports, Amnesty International issued a blistering report yesterday accusing Israel (and particularly the Israel Defence Forces) of committing war crimes during their recent military action in Lebanon. Is there any credence to their charges?
AI is not, at least in my view, the most credible or fair-minded human rights organization out there (see my posts on their previous charges against the U.S. government below). And I’m still waiting on their report on Hizbulluh/Iranian/Syria war crimes. Still, whether or not AI ignored war crimes on the Hizbulluh/Iran/Syria side, their charges about Israel must be taken seriously. Here is the crux of their charge, that Israel committed disproportionate attacks against civilian targets:
This interpretation is too wide. Overbroad interpretations of what constitutes a military objective or military advantage are often used to justify attacks aimed at harming the economy of a state or demoralizing the civilian population. Such interpretations undermine civilian immunity. A legitimate military advantage cannot be one that is merely “a potential or indeterminate advantage”. If weakening the enemy population’s resolve to fight were considered a legitimate objective of armed forces, there would be no limit to war.
Israel has launched widespread attacks against public civilian infrastructure, including power plants, bridges, main roads, seaports and Beirut’s international airport. Such objects are presumed to be civilian. Israeli officials told Amnesty International that the potential military use of certain items, such as electricity and fuel, renders them legitimate military targets. However, even if it could be argued that some of these objects could qualify as military objectives (because they serve a dual purpose), Israel is obligated to ensure that attacking these objects would not violate the principle of proportionality. For example, a road that can be used for military transport is still primarily civilian in nature. The military advantage anticipated from destroying the road must be measured against the likely effect on civilians, especially the most vulnerable, such as those requiring urgent medical attention. The same considerations apply to electricity and fuel, among other items.
Similarly critical is the obligation that Israel take “constant care to spare civilians, the civilian population, civilian objects, from attack”. This requirement to take precautionary measures in launching attacks includes choosing only means and methods of attack “with a view to avoiding, and in any event to minimizing, incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians and damage to civilian objects”.
It is also forbidden to use starvation as a method of warfare, or to attack, destroy, remove or render useless objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population. Some of the targets chosen – water pumping stations and supermarkets, for example – raise the possibility that Israel may have violated the prohibition against targeting objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population.
Israel has asserted that Hizbullah fighters have enmeshed themselves in the civilian population for the purpose of creating “human shields”. While the use of civilians to shield a combatant from attack is a war crime, under international humanitarian law such use does not release the opposing party from its obligations towards the protection of the civilian population.
This analysis is certainly plausible, but surely its interpretation of international humanitarian law is debatable. The facts appear relatively undisputed: Israel attacked civilian infrastructure in Lebanon on the reasonable assumption that this infrastructure was the basis of Hizbulluh’s ability to attack Israel and that Hizbulluh was in fact hiding within the civilian population to avoid attacks. AI says that even if that was the case, Israel cannot lawfully attack such civilian targets.
I doubt that there is lots of consensus on this point. Israel certainly has a decent argument that its inherent right of self-defense permits it to attack enemies hiding within a civilian population. The point is that this is a very hard legal question – indeed, it may very well be unresolvable under current international humanitarian law. Certainly, there is very little state practice supporting AI’s position. But they do have a fair normative case.
In the end, I doubt that IHL can help resolve anything of importance here. There is simply too much disagreement and uncertainty over IHL principles in the context of reprisals against terrorist grousp to be able to definitively claim that Israel’s bombing campaign constituted a war crime. If AI was a fair-minded organization, it would admit this truth. But they obviously have not. So what does that say about AI?