When Civilians Are Fair Game in War Noncombatants Pay the Price When the World Ignores or Refuses to Enforce International Humanitarian Law

Article excerpt

ISRAELI shells slam into a United Nations compound in southern Lebanon, decapitating children, wounding UN peacekeepers, and killing scores of civilians who have sought refuge with the UN from Israeli bombardment.

Last week's tragedy is further proof that in today's warfare, there is no refuge for refugees unable to leave their own country. These so-called "internally displaced" are entirely dependent on the willingness and ability of combatants to respect the rules of war - rules that are being slowly shredded by actions like Israel's.

Who, after all, was to blame for the outrage? Certainly not the "smart" Firefinder shells that were supposed to strike Hizbullah guerrillas with surgical accuracy, but instead were dumb enough to find women and children. Nor even the Hizbullah guerrillas - however provocatively close to the UN compound they may have situated their Katyushas. No, last week's tragedy was the inevitable consequence of Israel's current policy, which is to bomb the Lebanese people in the hope that the government (or the Syrians) will clamp down on Hizbullah. Israel has attacked civilian suburbs of Beirut, electric power stations, and even an ambulance. The casualties are said to include a four-day-old baby. History suggests that attacking civilians is not an effective form of diplomacy or warfare, but the truly amazing thing is that Israelis, of all people, think otherwise. Ironically, the attack on the UN compound occurred in the week that the world remembered the Holocaust, the ultimate attack on innocent civilians. And yet it was also Hitler's death camps that persuaded governments to update the Geneva Conventions in 1949, by extending protection to civilians in war. This has been the bedrock of humanitarian law ever since, but 50 years later it is casually ignored. In today's confused wars (which tend to be fought inside national borders rather than between states) civilians have become fair game. In Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Mozambique, children have been forcibly recruited, drugged, and even forced to mutilate their own relatives to make them tougher soldiers. In Bosnia, women and children were preferred sniper targets. Targeting civilians Recently, during a visit to Rwanda, I went to the small church of Ntarama, where as many as 5,000 Tutsi civilians sought refuge during the massacres of 1994. There was to be no escape: Hutu militia closed the doors and tossed grenades into the church. The church has been left as it was found - littered with clothes and human bones. Skulls sit on the altar. …


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