When Civilians Are Fair Game in War

Noncombatants pay the price when the world ignores or refuses to enforce international humanitarian law

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.

Such acts are not aberrations that happen in the heat of battle. They are indicative of how targeting civilians has become an accepted military tactic, aimed at spreading terror, "cleansing" enemy territory, or committing genocide.

This is happening, moreover, at a time when the safety net of international law looks increasingly frayed. Governments are currently meeting in Geneva to revise a 1980 agreement limiting land mines. Their solution: a new generation of "smart" mines which, by self-destructing and deactivating, they hope will reduce civilian casualties. The problem is that even "smart" weaponry does not distinguish between civilians and combatants, as the recent tragedy in Lebanon demonstrated.

War-crimes tribunals

Two international tribunals have been established to punish war criminals and the authors of genocide in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. This is an important step forward, but between them the tribunals have fewer than 10 suspects in custody. More serious, the tribunals' political and financial resources are still not assured.

The UN Commission on Human Rights has agreed that the "internally displaced" are uniquely vulnerable, and each year a special United Nations investigator, Francis Deng, monitors their plight.

But such monitoring only serves its purpose if it leads to action. In Burundi and Beirut, the displaced are given humanitarian aid and fall under the UN Development Programme. This is to misread the problem: These people need protection, not aid.

The same was true of Bosnia during the war, where the UN assumed that those uprooted by fighting could be protected by declaring "safe areas" and sending relief aid. Of the six "safe" areas, Bihac, Tuzla, Sarajevo, and Gorazde were mercilessly pounded, and another two - Srebrenica and Zepa - were overrun and thousands massacred.

Of course it is important to recognize the vulnerability of the internally displaced; but an even more important principle is that noncombatants are indeed hors de combat.

This applies to all governments, not just those like Israel who are on the front line. Why, for example, do so many Western governments still continue to use land mines, when their military value is at the very least questionable? Why do they try to deter asylum-seekers by splitting families and labeling them as "economic migrants"? Why do they draft children under the age of 18 into their armed forces?

All these policies violate the spirit of the Geneva Conventions. This has to change. Without humanitarian law, we have all lost the war.

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