The attack of civilians in wartime
With all the news from the Middle East,it was easy to forget that yesterday was the 61st anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Japan. The blog Hootsbuddy's Place notes the day with the reminder that Nagasaki was atomic-bombed three days later, and includes this interesting (and saddening) information:
Nagasaki is famous in the history of Japanese Christianity. Not only was it the site of the largest Christian church in the Orient, St. Mary's Cathedral, but it also had the largest concentration of baptized Christians in all of Japan.Since the beginning of the Industrial Age, civilians have inevitably suffered greatly in war.
Although no one knows how many Hezbollah fighters have died in the Israel-Hezbollah war, figures released by both sides should be treated skeptically. Hezbollah admits to only a few dozen and Israel claims a few hundred, though Israel has lowered its estimate in the last few days.
That being said, there is no doubt that civilians in both Lebanon and Israel are suffering greatly. Early last week CNN said that according to the UN High Commission on Refugees, 880,000 Lebanese civlians had been driven from their homes because of the war, as had 300,000 Israeli civilians. Late last week the total estimate topped a million.
Human Rights Watch has stated that both sides are guilty of violating laws of war in the nature of the fighting. Its has a site devoted to the topic called, "Questions and Answers on Hostilities Between Israel and Hezbollah. James Joyner provides some illuminating excerpts.
What is Hezbollah’s status in relation to the conflict?
Hezbollah is an organized political Islamist group based in Lebanon, with a military arm and a civilian arm, and is represented in the Lebanese parliament and government. As such a group, and as a party to the conflict with Israel, it is bound to conduct hostilities in compliance with customary international humanitarian law and Common Article 3, which as stated above applies to conflicts that are not interstate but between a state and a non-state actor. As is explicitly stated in Common Article 3, and made clear by the commentaries of the International Committee of the Red Cross, the application of the provisions of Common Article 3, as well as customary international law, to Hezbollah does not affect its legal status.
Was Hezbollah’s capture of Israeli soldiers lawful?
The targeting and capture of enemy soldiers is allowed under international humanitarian law. However, captured combatants must in all circumstances be treated humanely.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nassrallah has stated that the captured soldiers will be used to negotiate the release of Palestinian, Lebanese and other Arab prisoners from Israel. The use of captives who are no longer involved in the conflict for this purpose constitutes hostage-taking. Hostage-taking as part of an armed conflict is strictly forbidden under international law, by both Common Article 3 and customary international law, and is a war crime.
Which targets are Israel and Hezbollah entitled to attack under international humanitarian law?
Two fundamental tenets of international humanitarian law are those of “civilian immunity” and the principle of “distinction.” They impose a duty to distinguish at all times in the conduct of hostilities between combatants and civilians, and to target only the former. It is forbidden in any circumstance to direct attacks against civilians; indeed, as noted, to do so intentionally amounts to a war crime.
It is also generally forbidden to direct attacks against what are called “civilian objects,” such as homes and apartments, places of worship, hospitals, schools or cultural monuments, unless they are being used for military purposes. Military objects that are legitimately subject to attack are those that make an “effective” contribution to military action and whose destruction, capture or neutralization offers a “definite military advantage.” Where there is doubt about the nature of an object, it must be presumed to be civilian.
The mere fact that an object has civilian uses does not necessarily render it immune from attack. It, too, can be targeted if it makes an “effective” contribution to the enemy’s military activities and its destruction, capture or neutralization offers a “definite military advantage” to the attacking side in the circumstances ruling at the time. However, such “dual use” objects might also be protected by the principle of proportionality, described below.
Even when a target is serving a military purpose, precautions must always be taken to protect civilians.