Thursday, August 24, 2006

Nothing Funny To See Here, Keep Scrolling

This is going to be long and boring...

I don't pass much comment on current affairs, since this page is devoted to inane comedy and poking fun at internet oddballs, but one current debate in the right of the blogosphere has to be addressed.

LGF, The Volokh Conspiracy and, of course, Instapundit, are all taking aim at Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch for the reports these organisations have published about the recent conflict in Lebanon.

I don't comment on Israeli/Arab disputes because they are so complex and involve so much history that even experts on the subject occasionally admit that they cannot provide solutions. It also seems entirely crass to sit at my computer in Edinburgh, lecturing those whose homes are being bombed.

Additionally, argument isn't my forte - there are others far better than I at deconstructing the ravings of internet lunatics.

Finally, I particularly don't like the partisan style of British and American internet "experts" on the Middle East. Their hysterical hectoring reveals far more about their own agendas than it does about the conflict itself - almost all of the right uses Israel to show its fierce, blustering, macho anti-fascism while the most of the left adopts the cause of the Palestinians to claim their victimhood.

Both use the situation as a proxy to attack their domestic opponents. Both are entirely righteous and cannot be reasoned with, backing off if they are refuted on a point and coming back with spurious, belligerent nonsense.

The Right-Blogosphere - Standing Athwart Reality Crying "No!"

I will not address the question of whether Israel was defending itself from attack and whether extraordinary measures were justified by the singular threat of Hezbollah. These are irrelevant to the point that Amnesty is making.

The only pertinent question is "Has Israel committed war crimes in Lebanon?"

The answer to this is an unqualified yes, but you will not find this simple statement of fact on any right wing website. It is obvious that the outraged squawks from the right are not based on Amnesty's accuracy or actual bias, they are outraged because Amnesty's report shows them the consequences of the massive violence they routinely call for. To paraphrase a far more intelligent man than I, their rage is that of Caliban seeing his face in the mirror.

You'll find a lot of justifications and excuses, all of them a variation on "It's Hezbollah's fault because they're evil, and they want to destroy Israel". This is the politics of the playground - it amounts to a childish refusal to eat their greens. None of these justifications can obliterate the cold, hard fact that Israel is obligated to minimise civilian casualties and damage to infrastructure. That right wingers have spent months claiming that Israel has done so shows how valuable their insight is.

Regardless of whether Hezbollah is signatory to the same international agreements, whether it bears arms openly, or whether it uses human shields, Israel has violated its commitments and has committed war crimes.

The cry of "moral equivalence" is often heard from the right - the crime of holding one group of people to a higher standard than another based on context. What we have seen in the past two months is a mass outbreak of this phenomenon across the right of the blogosphere.

The situation is in fact the opposite of that depicted by the right. Israel is held to a higher standard because it is a liberal democracy and has signed many international treaties which regulate its conduct, whereas Hezbollah is a terrorist group, and the law treats it as such. No tears are shed for dead Islamists, because their group is itself illegal.

I want to make this clear - the fact that war crimes have been committed by both sides does not invalidate the Israelis' purpose in attempting to destroy Hezbollah. The destruction of Dresden in World War II was a war crime, but that does not mean that the overthrow of fascism suddenly became a dishonourable objective.

Let me state firmly - I utterly condemn Hezbollah's war crimes. Firing missiles indiscriminately into urban areas is forbidden by law and is unquestionably a war crime, as is the deliberate use of human shields. Amnesty's report is emphatic that the actions of Hezbollah will be addressed in another document. This one deals only with Israeli actions, and Amnesty has never addressed the politics of conflicts. It does not care which side initiates hostilities, its remit is limited to the observance of international law and respect for human rights.

Israel is a signatory of the Geneva Conventions and the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. These documents forbid attacks on civilians, their property and, unless there is a very sound military reason for its destruction, civilian infrastructure. If someone is standing on the minaret of a mosque firing RPG rounds at your soldiers, international law permits states to destroy the minaret.

If you suspect that two terrorists are in a massive city block, however, it is prohibited to destroy the entire block to kill them. This is the proportionality test under which the decision to take military action is judged justifiable or not.

Israel destroyed bridges in "areas of no apparent strategic importance", water pumping stations, water treatment plants, petrol stations and supermarkets. These are definitively civilian targets, and the justifications that have been deployed defending the destruction of ports, airports and UN observation posts do not apply.

"Israeli government spokespeople have insisted that they were targetting Hezbollah positions and support facilities, and that damage to civilian infrastructure was accidental or resulted from Hizbullah using the civilian population as a "human shield". However, the pattern and scope of the attacks, as well as the number of civilian casualties and the amount of damage sustained, makes the justification ring hollow. The evidence strongly suggests that the destruction of public works, power systems, civilian homes and industry was deliberate and an integral part of the military strategy, rather than "collateral damage"...

"Statements by Israeli military officials seem to confirm that the destruction of the infrastructure was indeed a goal of the military campaign...

"Nothing is safe (in Lebanon), it's as simple as that." Cheif of Staff Lt-Gen Dan Halutz, IDF, 13th July 2006

...Three days later, a high ranking IDF officer threatened that Israel would destroy Lebanese power plants if Hizbullah fired long-range missiles at strategic installations in northern Israel... On 24 July, at a briefing by a high-ranking Israeli Air Force officer, reporters were told that the IDF Chief of Staff had ordered the military to destroy 10 buildings in Beirut for every Katyusha rocket strike on Haifa... According to the New York Times, the IDF Chief of Staff said the air strikes were aimed at keeping pressure on Lebanese officials, and delivering a message to the Lebanese government that they must take respobsibility for Hizbullah's actions. He called Hizbullah a "cancer" that Lebanon must get rid of, "because if they don't their country will pay a very high price."

The report also notes that there was no change to Israeli attacks, nor did their pattern appear to change, even when it became clear that the victims were predominantly civilians, as it did in the very first days of the conflict.

The following points have been made over and over by right wing bloggers, but they are invalid in the context of the question I am examining. A war crime remains a war crime, regardless of whether you believe it is justified.

States and individuals may argue that international treaties are outdated or "quaint", but they are still law and states are obliged to abide by them, e.g. the fact that you do not believe it is a crime to smoke grass will not wash with the police.

Israel is obligated to protect its citizens from attack and is permitted to engage in military actions to assure their safety. In doing so, it may not directly attack civilians nor deliberately displace them by attacking infrastructure.

Israel protests that it warned civilians to leave areas that it was about to bomb, but this too is irrelevant. There is no duty on civilians to avoid bombs and bullets - that duty falls on the combatants.

Lebanon is obligated to prevent terrorist attacks from its territory on sovereign nations. The fact that it cannot do so does not grant carte blanche to Israel to ignore its international commitments.

Democracies have greater responsibilities than terrorists. The fact that Islamists flaunt the laws of war does not somehow permit signatories to international agreements to ignore those laws. Similar sentiments have been espoused by Israeli judges, including Aharon Barak.

Israel either chooses to respect the international agreements to which it is signatory, or it does not. Hezbollah may contravene any number of conventions but they have not signed them. Whether you regard this as fair or not, it is the price required to earn the status of a democratic nation that respects human rights.

Lebanese civilians, on the other hand, are protected by many treaties - there can be little doubt that many of these have been violated by Israeli actions. Amnesty's report details the types of target struck by the Israeli military and it is very hard to deny that it was done with the deliberate intention of punishing the Lebanese people as a whole.

I'm sure you'll understand why I normally stay away from commenting directly on politics, since I have a tendency to go on at length. But the right wing of the blogosphere's "self-correction" mechanism is clearly not functioning here.

It is only when we can see a situation in its entirety that we can begin to deal with it - further denial from the right wing only serves to muddy the waters and leave us poorly informed.

But then, that's the point, isn't it?
Update!: Of course, Amnesty International should not be doubted when it is reporting human rights violations in Iran.
The right blogosphere is so transparent you can practically see their hearts pumping.

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