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UN rights commissioner warns of war crimes liability in Middle East conflict

[JURIST] UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour [official profile; JURIST news archive] Wednesday threatened perpetrators of wanton violence against civilians in the current Middle East conflict with liability for war crimes. In a pointed statement [press release] directed equally at Israel and Hezbollah and warning both combatants and their leaders, Arbour said:

Indiscriminate shelling of cities constitutes a foreseeable and unacceptable targeting of civilians. Similarly, the bombardment of sites with alleged military significance, but resulting invariably in the killing of innocent civilians, is unjustifiable. International humanitarian law is clear on the supreme obligation to protect civilians during hostilities. This obligation is also expressed in international criminal law, which defines war crimes and crimes against humanity. International law demands accountability. The 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.
Arbour, former UN war crimes prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, spoke out against attacks on civilians [JURIST report] on Friday, but this latest pronouncement is her strongest to date. Israeli air strikes have caused most of the 293 deaths in Lebanon in the eight-day-old conflict, which began when Hezbollah guerrillas [BBC backgrounder] kidnapped two Israeli soldiers. Twenty-nine Israelis have died, most in Hezbollah rocket attacks.

Human Rights Watch [advocacy website] said Tuesday that Hezbollah likely committed war crimes [JURIST report] against Israel by firing rockets apparently designed to inflict civilian injuries. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) [official website], the guardian of the Geneva Conventions [ICRC materials; Wikipedia backgrounder] on the conduct of war, has told both Israel and Hezbollah that they must avoid targeting civilians during combat. Meanwhile, the president of the Beirut Bar Association [association website, English version] announced Tuesday that Lebanese lawyers would meet with government officials to discuss the "possibility to file a complaint with the UN against Israeli political and military leaders, who are committing war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide on Lebanese territory." Reuters has more. Beirut's Daily Star has local coverage.

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