UN rights head sees possible war crimes

GENEVA (Reuters) — The scale of killing and maiming of civilians in Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian territory points to possible war crimes, the United Nations human rights chief said on Wednesday.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour said that international humanitarian law was clear on the need to protect non-combatants in any conflict. “This obligation is also expressed in international criminal law, which defines war crimes and crimes against humanity,” she said.

“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,” she said, without directly accusing anyone.

In a statement, she expressed “grave concern over the continued killing and maiming of civilians in Lebanon, Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory.”

Arbour, a former Canadian supreme court judge and war crimes prosecutor, said the “indiscriminate shelling” of cities and the bombing of sites where civilians would suffer were unacceptable.

Israel air strikes have accounted for most of the 293 deaths in Lebanon in the eight-day-old war which began after Hizbollah fighters kidnapped two Israeli soldiers.

The Lebanese Shiite group has rained rockets down on northern Israeli towns and villages. Twenty-nine Israelis have died in the violence. Israel says the bombardments will last as long as it takes to free the soldiers and ensure the Shiite Muslim group is disarmed.

Its offensive in Lebanon has coincided with a three-week-old push into the Gaza Strip to retrieve another soldier, seized by Palestinian fighters on June 25.

Stretched rules

As international concern mounted for civilians caught up in the bloodshed, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) suggested that Israel had stretched the agreed rules of war with its air and land operations in Lebanon.

The Swiss-based body — the recognised guardian of the Geneva Conventions on the conduct of war — said it had told the Israelis and Hizbollah that both must avoid targetting civilians in their military faceoff.

Under the Conventions, first formulated after World War I and expanded after the devastation of World War II, countries involved in international conflicts are obliged to observe measure in their response to actions by an opposing side.

“One week after the start of the latest armed hostilities in Lebanon, the ICRC is extremely concerned about the grave consequences that military action is still having on the civilian population,” it said in a statement.

“The ICRC reminds the parties to the conflict that the obligation to distinguish between civilians and civilian objects, on the one hand, and military objectives, on the other, is at the core of international humanitarian law and must be complied with at all times,” it added.

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