Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Human Rights Watch: Human Rights Vs. Human Life

On August 17, Kenneth Roth,Executive Director of Human Rights Watch in New York, wrote a column in the Jerusalem Post explaining HRW's position on Israel's war with Hezbollah. Roth's intent is clear from the start:
Why did so many Lebanese civilians lost their lives to Israeli bombing? The government line is that the IDF was doing the best it could, but these deaths were the result of Hizbullah hiding its rockets and fighters among civilians. But that assertion doesn't stand up to the facts.
Roth graciously grants that Hezbollah 'sometimes' hid among Lebanese civilians, and 'possibly' committed the war crime of using civilian shields, but insists that in the 2 dozen instances of Israeli bombings of Lebanon that they investigated--"in none of those cases was Hizbullah anywhere around at the time of the attack."

Roth insists HRW knows this based on their procedure:
We probed and cross-checked multiple eyewitnesses, many of whom talked openly of Hizbullah's presence elsewhere but were adamant that Hizbullah was not at the scene of the attack. We examined bombing sites for evidence of military activity such as trenches, destroyed rocket launchers and military equipment, or dead or wounded fighters. If we were unsure, we gave the IDF the benefit of the doubt.

The case of Kana shows how this works.
Kana is a solid example of how HRW works? OK, let's take a look at Kana. On July 30, HRW reported:
Responsibility for the Israeli airstrikes that killed at least 54 civilians sheltering in a home in the Lebanese village of Qana rests squarely with the Israeli military, Human Rights Watch said today. It is the latest product of an indiscriminate bombing campaign that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have waged in Lebanon over the past 18 days, leaving an estimated 750 people dead, the vast majority of them civilians.
Then, 3 days later, on August 2, HRW reports its correction:
A preliminary Human Rights Watch investigation into the July 30 Israeli air strike in Qana found that 28 people are confirmed dead thus far, among them 16 children, Human Rights Watch said today.

The initial estimate of 54 persons killed was based on a register of 63 persons who had sought shelter in the basement of the building that was struck, and rescue teams having located nine survivors. It now appears that at least 22 people escaped the basement, and 28 are confirmed dead, according to records from the Lebanese Red Cross and the government hospital in Tyre.

o If the second report is preliminary, what was the first one 3 days earlier--the erroneous one that HRW widely circulated?

o According to Roth, HRW investigations are full of probes and cross-checking of eyewitnesses as well as the investigation of the physical evidence. But at Kana, Roth's prime example of HRW's methods, there was apparently no checking with survivors--or did survivors confirm the higher numbers?

o Reporters have noted Hezbollah's presence, control, and intimidation. Was Hezbollah present during HRW's investigations and influence those interviewed? Since Hezbollah does not wear uniforms, how would HRW know? For that matter, what steps are taken by HRW to insure that their own members are not manipulated by Hezbollah in the way reporters have admitted they were?

o Moreover, since Hezbollah does not wear a uniform, how does HRW determine which casualties are Hezbollah and which are not?

In another well-crafted paragraph, Roth says:
But under international humanitarian law, just as Israeli abuses in Lebanon did not justify reprisals against Israeli civilians, so Hizbullah's war crimes did not justify Israel shirking its duty to protect Lebanese civilians.
First, Roth combines the idea of law and humanitarianism, which he utilizes later when he reinterprets international law. But what Roth also slips in is the insinuation that Hezbollah's thousands of bombs sent indiscriminately into Israel were neither acts of war nor terror but merely reprisals in response to so-called Israeli abuses in Lebanon.

But this paragraph takes the cake:
But giving warning, as required by international humanitarian law, does not relieve the attacker of the duty to distinguish between civilians and combatants and to target only combatants. Otherwise, Palestinian militants might "warn" Israeli settlers to leave their West Bank settlements and then be justified in attacking anyone who remained. Hizbullah might have done the same in northern Israel.
What "international humanitarian law" is Roth referring to here? Not the Geneva Convention. Roth claims that even after warning, Israel has "the duty to distinguish between civilians and combatants and to target only combatants." [emphasis added]

Roth is deceptive. By inventing the term "international humanitarian law" Roth clouds the issue--the Geneva Convention is a set of rules for the ugly, but often unavoidable, conduct of war, and does not forbid attacks where civilian lives are at risk. The avoidance of injury and casualty to civilians is desireable, but is not always possible. Thus the Geneva Convention, Chapter IV, Article 57 includes:
...(ii) Take all feasible precautions in the choice of 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;

(iii) Refrain from deciding to launch any attack which may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects, or a combination thereof, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated; [in this case the prevention of the indiscriminate bombing of Israel, including the hospital in Haifa]

(c) Effective advance warning shall be given of attacks which may affect the civilian population, unless circumstances do not permit.

3. When a choice is possible between several military objectives for obtaining a similar military advantage, the objective to be selected shall be that the attack on which may be expected to cause the least danger to civilian lives and to civilian objects. [as opposed to forbidding the attack altogether]
Of course one can argue about Israel's attacks in the context of the outline of Article 57 , but by deceptively muddying the waters with talk of an "international humanitarian law," Roth implies the existence of law that exceeds what the Geneva Convention itself recognizes as legitimate.

Roth digs deeper into absurdity in that same paragraph:
Otherwise, Palestinian militants might "warn" Israeli settlers to leave their West Bank settlements and then be justified in attacking anyone who remained. Hizbullah might have done the same in northern Israel.
Since Palestinian militants terrorists make a point of targeting innocent women and children, in direct contradistinction to Israel's targeting of terrorists, Roth's argument is faulty--and by implying a justification of Palestinian terrorist attacks, insulting as well.

Roth concludes with his personal interpretation of how Israel should conduct war according to "international humanitarian law," a term he uses 3 times but never identifies:

It means attacking civilian structures and vehicles only if there is evidence that Hizbullah is actually using them. Even then, it means making serious efforts to determine whether civilian structures and vehicles contain civilians, and attacking only if the definite military advantage is so powerful that it justifies their deaths.

Above all, it means treating Lebanese civilians as human beings whose lives are as valuable as Israelis'. Protecting Israelis from Hizbullah's deadly rockets is vital, but it does not justify indifference to the taking of civilian lives on the other side of the border.

Roth has an obligation to ground his assumptions about international law in actual sources. His failure to do so is a reflection of his flight into fantasy, where abstract ideas of Human Rights take precedence over real threats to Human Life.

See also The Decline of Amnesty International at the Volokh Conspiracy
Human Rights Watch's Credibility--Not So Good

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