Lebanon Conflict Watched for War Crimes

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour has criticized the rising civilian death toll in the conflict between Hezbollah and Israel. She talks to John Ydstie about the suggestion that killing on both sides may involve war crimes.

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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm John Ydstie.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

In the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah, which has gone on for 10 days now, more than 300 people have been killed in Lebanon and nearly three dozen in Israel. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan appealed for a ceasefire. He warned of a humanitarian crisis in Lebanon. The U.S. has resisted calls for a ceasefire, giving Israel time to try to degrade Hezbollah's military capabilities.

Here is State Department spokesman Sean McCormack.

Mr. SEAN MCCORMACK (Spokesman, State Department): We are going to do what we believe is right, and what we believe is right is to help bring about an end to the violence in such a way that it is lasting, and that the people of Lebanon won't find themselves back in this particular situation where a terrorist group has been able to drag an entire nation into an abyss of violence.

YDSTIE: However, the United Nations top official for human rights, Louise Arbor, is alarmed by the civilian casualties. She has issued a warning to the leadership on both sides of the conflict and suggested that the killing of civilians may involve war crimes.

Arbor, who is the chief prosecutor for international criminal tribunals in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia joined us on the line from her office in Geneva.

Ms. LOUISE ARBOUR (United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights): There've been an enormous amount of civilian casualties in this conflict, right from the beginning. And there have been many calls from many quarters for restraint on the part of the belligerence, to obey, by international humanitarian law. What essentially is called the law of war, that prohibits, absolutely, certainly the targeting of civilians during armed conflict.

Now, this body of law has evolved over the years, beyond just humanitarian law, into becoming the substance of international criminal law - and it engages the personal criminal responsibility of leaders, political and military leaders, for serious violations of the laws and customs of war.

YDSTIE: So you're suggesting that Israel's political leaders and military commanders, along with Hezbollah's political leaders and military commanders, could face war crimes charges as a result of what they're doing now.

Ms. ARBOUR: Well, I think the information that is in the public domain raises a lot of concerns about whether civilian populations are being indiscriminately attacked, so as to raise these attacks to the level of kind of deliberate targeting of civilian populations. This would be flatly in contravention of international humanitarian law, and yes, could expose these leaderships to responsibility.

YDSTIE: What makes you believe that it's elevated to that level? Is it the sheer numbers of civilian casualties?

Ms. ARBOUR: The numbers actually could elevate the matters further from war crimes to crimes against humanity, which are often similar conduct murders, essentially, or extermination on a widespread or systematic basis. I think the indiscriminate shelling of cities or neighborhoods, that on the surface appear to have no military significance or marginal military significance and that yield invariably high levels of civilian causalities - non-combatants, children - it seems to me that it certainly poses the question very squarely of whether or not the violations amount to war crimes.

YDSTIE: Do you see any moral or legal difference between the Israeli government targeting Hezbollah in Lebanon and killing civilians in the process, and Hezbollah reigning missiles into Israel?

Ms. ARBOUR: I never see much moral difference between one murder and another. From my point of view, what's important is whether or not the parties are complying with their legal obligations. You know, this body of law, international criminal law that governs the law of war, is not interested in the justness or the equity of the parties. You can have a very just cause. You could be acting in self-defense. All this has nothing to do with whether or not you're allowed to target civilian population.

YDSTIE: Israel has said civilians are being killed in Lebanon because Hezbollah is hiding among the civilian population. Does that change the legal equation at all?

Ms. ARBOUR: It complicates the factual assessment, and I think, again, one has to - and that's why I'm not accusing anybody and I'm not passing judgment. One has to look at whether there was a legitimate military target that was being pursued, and the principle of proportionality requires that if there's a genuine military target it still ought not to be pursued if the predictable civilian, innocent civilian casualties would outweigh the military benefits.

These are very sophisticated judgments of fact and law that cannot be determined on the basis of news accounts. But one would have to hope that there would be a forum at some point where these issues could be examined professionally.

YDSTIE: Louise Arbour is the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. She spoke with us from Geneva. Thank you very much.

Ms. ARBOUR: My pleasure.

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