War unchecked

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Sunday, November 15, 2009

IN ORDER to eliminate the Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, the United States launched at least 15 missile strikes in Pakistan this year and killed, besides Mr. Mehsud, somewhere between 200 and 300 people, according to a study by the New America Foundation. At least a quarter of those who died were civilians.

Was that toll "disproportionate" to the threat posed by a single terrorist and therefore a war crime? How about the recent NATO bombing of hijacked fuel tankers in northern Afghanistan, in which a mix of 80 to 120 Taliban militants and civilians died? Justified strike, accident or war crime?

This is the sort of fraught question that the United Nations and its Human Rights Council, in theory, ought to be focused on. Asymmetrical wars, in which terrorists and insurgents deliberately mix among civilians, are the story of the 21st century so far -- and there are no clear norms for managing the moral dilemmas they pose. Can a drone's targeter knowingly expose civilians to injury if a terrorist leader is in range? How should a civilized army respond when its soldiers are mortared, or its own civilians exposed to rocket fire, from a position inside a schoolyard?

A commission appointed by the Human Rights Council to investigate Israel's war with Hamas in Gaza last winter could have set an example of serious treatment of such issues. Headed by the respected South African jurist Richard Goldstone, the panel altered the one-sided mandate it received, so as to examine abuses by both Israel and Hamas during the three-week conflict.

But Israel refused to cooperate -- and the Goldstone commission proceeded to make a mockery of impartiality with its judgment of facts. It concluded, on scant evidence, that "disproportionate destruction and violence against civilians were part of a deliberate policy" by Israel. At the same time it pronounced itself unable to confirm that Hamas hid its fighters among civilians, used human shields, fired mortars and rockets from outside schools, stored weapons in mosques, and used a hospital for its headquarters, despite abundant available evidence.

By pretending it did not know whether Hamas employed such tactics and by claiming that Israel's actions were driven by a motivation to kill civilians on purpose, rather than to defeat Hamas, the panel dodged the hard issues it should have tackled. It did not seriously attempt to balance civilian deaths against the threats Israel was targeting or to understand the real motivations for the destruction in areas from which rockets were launched at Israeli cities.

As it happens, Israel is ahead of most other nations in managing these issues. In Gaza its forces used thousands of e-mails, phone calls and even non-lethal explosives to warn civilians away from airstrike targets. Its army's criminal division is investigating 45 complaints of abuses.

A broader, government-sanctioned independent investigation is called for: a number of specific allegations in the Goldstone report, one-sided though they are, deserve a full answer. Not just Israel but the United States and many other nations ought to face more pressure to justify the means they use to fight insurgents and terrorists. Sadly, the only thing proved by the Goldstone commission is that the United Nations is incapable of performing that service.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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