HRW: Israel violated laws of war in Lebanon

From Human Rights Watch, Feb. 17:

The human devastation inflicted on Lebanon by Israel’s illegal use of cluster munitions highlights the urgent need for an international treaty banning the weapon, Human Rights Watch said in releasing a report today. At a conference this week, more than 100 states will discuss a treaty to ban cluster munitions, a process prompted in part by Israel’s cluster attacks on Lebanon in 2006.

In the 131-page report, “Flooding South Lebanon: Israel’s Use of Cluster Munitions in Lebanon in July and August 2006,” Human Rights Watch found that Israel violated international humanitarian law in its indiscriminate and disproportionate cluster munition attacks on Lebanon. The report provides the most comprehensive and detailed account yet of the nature and impact of Israel’s use of cluster munitions.

“Israel fired huge numbers of cluster bombs into Lebanon, leaving bomblets that have killed and maimed almost 200 people since the war ended,” said Steve Goose, director of the Arms division at Human Rights Watch. “Only a global treaty that bans cluster munitions will prevent such tragedies in the future.”

At a five-day conference which starts in Wellington, New Zealand on February 18, 2008 more than 100 countries will discuss the text of a treaty to ban the production, stockpiling, transfer, and use of cluster munitions that cause unacceptable harm to civilians. Israel’s cluster attacks on Lebanon in 2006 played a major role in sparking the treaty process that began in Oslo last year and is scheduled to finish later in 2008.

Cluster munitions are large weapons that release dozens or hundreds of smaller submunitions. Air-dropped or ground-launched, they cause two major humanitarian problems. First, their wide-area effect virtually guarantees civilian casualties when they are used in populated areas. Second, many of the submunitions do not explode on impact as designed, causing civilian casualties for months or years to come.

Israel rained as many as 4.6 million submunitions across southern Lebanon in at least 962 separate strikes, the vast majority over the final three days of the war when Israel knew a settlement was imminent. The 4.6 million estimate is higher than previously reported by other sources. It is based on additional information provided to Human Rights Watch by soldiers who fired cluster munitions from Multiple Launch Rocket Systems.

Israel hit dozens of towns and villages with cluster munitions, causing long-term and large-scale disruption of the largely agricultural economy. Human Rights Watch research found that many of the attacks on populated areas did not appear to have had a specific military target.

The United Nations has estimated that at least hundreds of thousands and perhaps 1 million submunitions did not explode on impact, but remained deadly, lingering like landmines. These submunition “duds” have caused about 200 civilian casualties since the war’s end, and the toll continues to grow.

Human Rights Watch called on Israel to give deminers precise information to locate and clear the duds. Despite frequent requests, Israel has refused to do so, thereby further contributing to ongoing suffering in southern Lebanon. The UN has complained that Israel has only provided generic maps without the specific attack sites, and has not provided needed information on the specific types and quantities of cluster munitions used.

“Israel could quickly reduce the danger to civilians by telling the UN where it fired cluster munitions, and its refusal to help is shocking,” said Goose.

Human Rights Watch calls for an independent and impartial public inquiry to assess the lawfulness of Israel’s cluster munitions use in Lebanon and to determine if individual commanders bear responsibility for war crimes. Israel’s continuing failure to mount a credible investigation reaffirms the need for the UN secretary-general to establish an International Commission of Inquiry to look at all possible violations of international law, including cluster munition attacks.

At the end of December 2007, the Israel Defense Forces issued the results of a second internal inquiry into their use of cluster munitions. The findings were a predictable whitewash justifying use of the weapon and finding no violations of international law.

However, the Winograd Commission, an Israeli committee of inquiry, released its own report on the conduct of the war on January 30, 2008, and its results mirrored many of Human Rights Watch’s findings. It acknowledged that cluster munitions were used in populated areas and caused post-conflict civilian casualties, and expressed concern about the “lack of clear orders, discipline and effective controls.” It recommended an independent and public “re-examination” of the rules surrounding Israel’s cluster munition use.

“The Lebanon story is just the latest example of something we’ve have seen over and over again: whenever cluster munitions are used, large numbers of civilians get killed and injured,” Goose said. “That is why we should ban this indiscriminate, inaccurate and unreliable weapon as soon as possible.”

Human Rights Watch investigated the conduct of all parties to the 34-day war in 2006. Human Rights Watch found that Hezbollah also fired cluster munitions into populated areas of Israel, in violation of international humanitarian law. The Israeli police told Human Rights Watch the Hezbollah clusters caused one death and 12 injuries.

Israel used large numbers of older models of cluster munitions, some of which were produced in the 1970s, with very high failure rates. Most of these were supplied by the United States.

But even Israel’s most advanced submunition—the M85 155mm artillery submunition with a self-destructing mechanism produced by Israel Military Industries—performed miserably. Although the manufacturer has touted a failure rate of less than 1 percent, an independent study by the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment and others found a failure rate of 10 percent and higher in southern Lebanon. This experience demonstrates that the “technical solution” of self-destruct mechanisms and required reliability standards promoted by some nations in the Oslo Process is not viable.

The Oslo Process, which Israel has not participated in, has garnered wide support for a global ban on cluster munitions. In addition to the ban, the treaty will include requirements for clearance of contaminated areas and assistance to affected individuals and communities.

At the conclusion of the Wellington meeting, states will subscribe to a declaration endorsing a draft treaty text that will be the basis for final negotiations in Dublin on May 19-30, 2008. A signing ceremony is expected to take place in December in Oslo.

“Flooding South Lebanon” is the latest in a series of Human Rights Watch reports documenting the use of cluster munitions around the world. Human Rights Watch found that the level and density of post-conflict contamination in southern Lebanon was far worse than the combined contamination found in Kosovo in 1999, in Afghanistan in 2001-2002, and in Iraq in 2003.

Among the data gathered by Human Rights Watch on cluster munitions:

* At least 14 countries and a small number of non-state armed groups have used cluster munitions in at least 30 countries and territories;

* At least 76 countries stockpile cluster munitions;

* Thirty-four countries have produced more than 210 different types of cluster munitions; and

* At least 13 countries have transferred more than 50 different types of cluster munitions to at least 60 other countries, as well to non-state armed groups.

See our last posts on Israel and Lebanon.