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Phalanx of UN rights officials urge respect for civilians in Mideast conflict

[JURIST] Six high-level UN human rights officials Friday urged all parties in the Middle East conflict to respect and protect the rights of civilians eight days after the conflict spread to Lebanon. UN rights rapporteurs and representatives on internally displaced persons, housing, food, freedom of expression, health and education [official websites] issued a rare joint statement [text] expressing "grave concern" that military activities in Lebanon, Israel and Gaza are causing unnecessary harm to civilian populations.

From the UN's European headquarters in Geneva, the experts called on all sides

to fully respect the principle of proportionality in the conduct of hostilities and to refrain from indiscriminate attacks on civilians causing loss of life and mass displacement. We urge them to immediately agree on the cessation of hostilities in order to permit unrestricted and secure passage of all humanitarian assistance.

...In Lebanon, civilian populations have been deprived of their housing and access to critical services. The massive destruction of public infrastructure obstructs delivery of humanitarian assistance to persons in need of urgent medical assistance, food, and safe water and sanitation. The lack of sanitation increases the risk of infectious diseases. According to UN estimates, about 500,000 people have been displaced in Lebanon, many of whom must seek refuge in schools, public buildings or are stranded in open spaces.

The reported destruction of schools will detrimentally affect enjoyment of the right to education in the long term. The wounding of media professionals, destruction of media infrastructure, and restrictions on access to war zones pose a threat to the freedom of information and expression.

In Israel, large numbers have been forced into shelters, many are fleeing northern cities, and water supplies in the north have been affected.

We recall that the civilian population must be protected in all circumstances and parties to a conflict must comply with the international legal obligation to distinguish between civilian and military objectives. International human rights law and humanitarian law both recognize the need to ensure the rights of civilians to life, food, the highest attainable standard of health, housing and other fundamental human rights which remain applicable in times of armed conflict. Provisions of international law protecting persons against being displaced and during displacement, as restated in the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, are of special relevance. Adequate measures should be taken as a matter of urgency to protect the civilian population and ensure non-discriminatory access to all necessary assistance and services, including proper accommodation for the displaced, in particular the most vulnerable.
Friday's joint declaration echoed other statements and warnings issued earlier this week by other concerned UN officials. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan told the UN Security Council [JURIST report] Thursday that "Both the deliberate targeting by Hezbollah of Israeli population centres with hundreds of indiscriminate weapons and Israel's disproportionate use of force and collective punishment of the Lebanese people must stop." UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour [official profile; JURIST news archive] Wednesday warned that both Israelis and Hezbollah fighters could be liable for war crimes [JURIST report; statement], saying that "scale of the killings in the region, and their predictability, could engage the personal criminal responsibility of those involved, particularly those in a position of command and control."

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