Attacks on civilians

June 14, 2016


Column: Civilians have once again become a military target

Carolien Roelants

During a recent meeting, organised by Dutch lobby organisation CIDI (Centre for Information & Documentation Israel), I heard the American lawyer Alan Dershowitz advocate revising the Geneva Conventions regarding the protection of civilians during wartime. Basically his point is that civilians should be less protected. The Geneva Conventions resulted from the slaughter among civilians during World War II. The idea was: ‘never more’, and therefore it was laid down in the Conventions and its later additions that is forbidden for any warring party to target civilians. Let alone in hospitals. In case there is a compelling military motive, for example to protect its own civilians, then there should be a certain proportionability between the number of victims and the military goal. What Dershowitz is concerned with is the position of Israel, which accuses its opponents Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza strip of using their civilian populations as a shield and the Geneva Conventions as a weapon. Israel still attacks hence the conflict with the United Nations and human rights organisations about whether or not Israel committed war crimes in its wars in Lebanon (2006) and Gaza (2008-2009 and 2014) during which large numbers of civilians were killed. As well as in future wars, without doubt. Within the Israeli strategy of deterrence, destroying civilian infrastructure is key element.

Dershowitz often advocates adapting the Geneva Conventions whereas the position of Israel is well known to all of us, I hear you say. But if I look around me I observe that Dershowitz already got his way. Who still cares about the conventions? Both world wars, I include the first one, are long time behind us and lessons once learned are forgotten.

Between 2012 and 2014 the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) counted nearly 2400 attacks on medical personnel in hospitals, patients and medical transports. I borrow these figures from a very concerned article in The Guardian by Peter Maurer of the ICRC and Joanne Liu of Médecins sans Frontières after the deadly attack on the Al-Quds Hospital in Aleppo in the last week of April. In 2015, 75 MSF-supported hospitals have been attacked. In Syria, nearly 60 percent of all hospitals have been bombed out of service or nearly so, mainly by Syrian and Russian bombers. Other notorious examples of attacks of the past year are the Kunduz hospital in Afghanistan by United States (‘a mistake), as well as hospitals (and other civil targets) in Yemen by Saudi Arabia. All of these attacks are in violation with the Geneva Conventions. Nowhere an independent, international investigation has been carried out.

ICRC and MSF demand more protection through a UN resolution. Sounds good, but tell me: why would parties comply with this resolution in this era when attacks on civilians have become the standard?

Column by Carolien Roelants in NRC/Handelsblad (The Netherlands), May 2, 2016

Translation: Robert Simons, IFHHRO