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On Human Rights and Enemy Combatants

by the Con Man (August 21st, 2006).

 

 

 

Weeks into Israel’s ongoing military operations in Lebanon, Human Rights Watch (HRW) accused Israel of war crimes, saying that it had “systematically failed to distinguish between combatants and civilians in their military campaign.” In a 50-page report released in August, claiming to analyze at least a dozen air and artillery attacks on civilian homes and vehicles, HRW concluded that Israel’s killing of civilians “cannot be dismissed as mere accidents and cannot be blamed on wrongful Hezbollah practices.”

 

A fair assessment, more or less.

 

An equally fair assessment that fails to get deserved publicity is that HRW has separately documented concurrent violations of international humanitarian law by Hezbollah. These violations include a pattern of attacks that amount to war crimes. Hezbollah has been “a thousand times more indiscriminate in its effort to target civilians,” says Mark Malloch Brown, the United Nations Deputy Secretary-General.

 

And it’s hard to disagree… The group has launched thousands of rockets – often packed with thousands of metal ball-bearings that spray more than 100 meters from the blast – without guidance systems, into predominantly civilian areas. The fact that they lack guidance systems makes them inherently indiscriminate, and since they are fired into cities, such tactics represent serious violations of international humanitarian law which requires that attackers distinguish at all times between combatants and civilians.

 

Is such a distinction being made in the current conflict in Lebanon? And is it as easy as HRW makes it out to be? The obvious answer to both questions is No. War, by its very nature claims innocent lives, so why should it be less so in the ambiguous and wide-ranging “War on Terror”. The truth is that there ought to be greater transparency in determining the rising death tolls: the innocent civilian component of the death toll must be better determined and more accurate.

 

In Israel, the soldier and innocent civilian are quite distinct. First of all, their physical appearance sets them apart and the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) is carrying out its operations outside of its civilian areas. When Israeli civilians are killed, it is obvious that they are civilians: their innocence is more or less apparent. The IDF are and ought to be the clear and apparent target for Hezbollah guerillas, not civilian communities.

 

When attacking Hezbollah, this distinction is not so easy to make: Hezbollah, conceived as a rebel resistance movement, has evolved into one of the supreme guerilla militias in the world. Their success has hinged on their creative and purposeful struggle on a battle field that has mostly consisted of their own communities and neighborhoods. Their less respectable tactics are a result of the hopelessness they feel in the face of a stronger military adversary. It is for this reason that the indiscriminate attacks on the innocent civilians belonging to the enemy seem justified and acceptable to the outsiders looking in. But this is most definitely an unfair tactic, and amounts to callous cowardice.

 

This is why a more sensible political distinction must be made between innocent civilians, and those justifiably grouped with the enemy. To tackle the issue of human rights in this context (and others where civilians mobilize militarily to resist occupation by a superior military power), a new paradigm must be adopted which can better address the often ambiguous roles civilians play. IDF is a formal military institution, and since the Israeli civilian is easy to distinguish from an IDF soldier, such a paradigm is best applied to an organization like Hezbollah.

 

On this spectrum innocent civilian victims represent one end: these individuals are either completely removed from the conflict (journalists and children for example) or politically neutral. On the opposite end of the spectrum are those civilians who fight (i.e. militants) and are directly involved in the planning and implementation of operations. In the middle are those civilians who morally, ideologically and perhaps financially support the militants. In between this position and the fighters are civilians who in addition to ideological and financial support, provide militants logistical support, or provide refuge for their persons and weapons in their homes.

 

Such a spectrum may or may not significantly alter the fact that crimes against humanity are being committed. This war has already claimed so many innocent civilian lives as a direct result of the IDF’s tactics, but the additional context around these deaths would be beneficial in uncovering the degree to which humanitarian law has been broken. More importantly, it is the best lens through which to fairly evaluate Hezbollah’s activities.

 

At first glance, one would think that Hezbollah is following the advice of a previous Israeli Defense Minister: “Caution in war, is stupidity.” It is perfectly clear that neither party to this war has acted intelligently, or in accordance with international humanitarian law.

 

The IDF on the other hand maintains that when they confront a situation where a distinction must be made between a militant and civilian, they exercise caution, asserting that civilian casualties results primarily from Hezbollah using human shields. In a recent column, the director of HRW Kenneth Roth admits that Hezbollah fighters hide behind civilians, but disagrees vehemently with the notion that this is the main cause for the high civilian death toll.

 

All-in-all, it is unlikely that Hezbollah is using civilians as shields directly, nor extensively; but the fact remains that they are a guerilla force residing, meeting, planning and operating within civilian communities, and this above anything else exposes innocents to danger. The correlation cannot be ignored, and the price paid cannot be more apparent.

 

Wars will be waged, and lives will be lost, innocent or not. The more awesome the weaponry, the more tremendous the violence and death. The more oppressive occupations will inevitably fall victim to increasingly brutal tactics and methods of resistance. Does Hezbollah have a choice? Sure they do. Does Israel have a choice? You bet. War may be an extension of political dialogue through other means, but it should always be an option of last resort.

 

Here’s where choice no longer exists: a nation has an obligation to its citizens, and in war, it has the right – indeed the obligation – to prefer the life of its own citizens over others, just as an individual would prefer the life of a family member to that of a stranger, at any cost. A closer examination of the indiscriminate methods of both parties to this conflict would be beneficial, but would become a waste of time as it spirals into a tit for tat dialogue. Israel is the undisputed regional superpower, and their weaponry is not getting less sophisticated, their intelligence network no less robust or effective, and their immediate environment is not likely to make them complacent or less vigilant any time soon. The same can be said for Hezbollah, who was just dealt a stronger hand.

 

Having important friends and carrying a big stick has its pluses, but it comes with more responsibility. It is more popular for the international community to side with the weaker side, the underdog, especially when the guys holding the big sticks are not particularly intelligent, articulate, or genuinely interested in resolving a conflict. But siding with, or at least granting greater leniency to the underdog using the more bestial tactics, whether with or without choice, is no less unjustified than the terror the IDF drops.

 

If we really want to talk about crimes against humanity, let’s first agree that the number of victims plays as, but no more significant a role than the weapons used, the motive, and/or criminal intent. Determining the means to spare innocent life in the context of human rights is not so difficult. Diplomacy remains the most effective means of resolving conflict, but the option of war should never be taken off the table, neither as an alternative to diplomacy, nor as the rationale for returning to the negotiating table. Until then, war will continue to serve its only real purpose: reminding us of our sacred, ignorant humanity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright Kompashun 2006

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