Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Military residents and a reinterpreted principle of 'distinction'

Another series of armed exchanges are taking place in the Gaza strip and we are once against appalled by the non-application and utter (non-gymnastic) defiance of the most fundamental principles of the law of war(forgetting only for a second about its misapplications and misinterpretations).

"Many areas of international law are vague. They can be interpreted in different ways. The situation in Gaza, for example, has no parallel anywhere else in the world. It's all open. So there are interpreters who want to interpret the law in such a way as to limit us as much as possible, and there are interpreters who are more convenient for us," says Israeli Justice Minister Friedmann, when asked about the perceived legality of attacking military targets in densely populated residential areas.

It seems not only that the Israeli government has yet to discern the actual purpose of its offensive or the moralist questions that surrounds the bad, good and evil (I turn you to a remarkably 'interesting' piece by David Horovitz, the Jerusalem Post's editor-in-chief who holds that the misconceptions of the international media are "an aberration that highlights how poorly 'our' complex conflict is understood") (emphasis added), but neither has it had enough time to position itself in relation to the relevant interpretational discourses surrounding the relevant jus in bello provisions.

The set of rules governing the attack strategies of a militarised territorial entity (outlined in Protocol I Additional to the Geneva Conventions (AP I)) against another are a self-applicable and clear framework. Suggesting a degree of complexity, in order to brush matters aside, the applicability (or rather malleability) of the existing law to wars against terrorist organizations is put at doubt.

The matter should be very simple, and action should commence with the adherence to and non-violation of the most fundamental of all principles - civilian immunity and the principle of distinction (the 'basic rule' in Article 48, AP I, to distinguish between civilians and combatants and to target only the latter). These questions remind us of the ones asked before, during and after the American aerial attacks on railways and television towers in Kosovo (granted these were cases of Aerial bombardments and the standards, it has been conceded, are different). These elaborate debates brought us to (un)clear conclusion that each case, and each target, needs to be considered on its own merits - namely, the end achieved by the action must outweigh the damage caused by it. This balancing of facts is to be done in accordance with the second most fundamental tenet of the laws of war, the basic principle of proportionality (Art 51(5)(b) AP I). The problematic is inherent to the definition of a "military target", the question of precision, the precautionary measures (Art 57, AP I) undertaken before and during the attack, etc.

We are faced by a recurring dilemma of IHL, exemplified similarly in the morbid 'one-ton bomb' incident of the house of Saleh Shehadeh in Gaza, which killed 14 civilians, including 8 children. In other words, considering the problematic of evidencing each and every attack in the current conflict frenzy and the hopeless reliance on post-conflictual accountability proceedings (a good example taken from Winograd, see earlier post), it is arguable that these targeting considerations need to be institutionalised as a procedural aspect of the earlier stages of the military decision-making processes. This will unquestionably be the only effective means for assuring that these provisions are at least considered, if not properly implemented. At the same time, this appears absolutely unfathomable in practice.

I suggest (as many international NGOs have done before) that the question to be asked should be much cruder. If we (i.e. laymen), and specifically the media, is able to distinguish (when numbering the casualties) between the civilian and the armed 'combatant', why and how is the legal norm so 'very' dynamically instrumentalised (or altogether ignored)to justify what are, prima facie, clear violations of the most basic and fundamental tenet of international humanitarian law, the principle of distinction?

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