Human Rights Watch: War Crimes for Dummies
by Petra Marquardt-Bigman
As predictable as night follows day, Human Rights Watch (HRW) will come up with accusations against Israel as soon as the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) do what they are supposed to do: defend Israel’s citizens.
So there is no reason to be surprised that HRW is now claiming that “Israeli army attacks on journalists and media facilities in the Gaza Strip during last month’s military operation violated the laws of war.”
Rejecting Israel’s explanations for these specific attacks, HRW Mideast director Sarah Leah Whitson reportedly quipped “Just because Israel says a journalist was a fighter or a TV station was a command center does not make it so.”
The legal adviser of the Jerusalem-based research institute NGO Monitor, Anne Herzberg, had a great response to Whitson: “Just because HRW claims something is a war crime does not make it so.”
But it is arguably very instructive to see when HRW does NOT claim that war crimes have been committed:
“Human Rights Watch has conducted a thorough investigation of civilian deaths … On the basis of this investigation, Human Rights Watch has found that there were ninety separate incidents involving civilian deaths … Some 500 … civilians are known to have died in these incidents. … nine incidents were a result of attacks on non-military targets that Human Rights Watch believes were illegitimate. … Thirty-three incidents occurred as a result of attacks on targets in densely populated urban areas … the use of cluster bombs was a decisive factor in civilian deaths in at least three incidents. … In its investigation Human Rights Watch has found no evidence of war crimes.”
When some 500 civilians die, when non-military targets are attacked and cluster bombs are used and yet, the conclusion is that there is “no evidence of war crimes,” you can be sure of one thing: Israel wasn’t involved. Indeed, the quote here is from a HRW report on NATO’s bombing campaign in Yugoslavia in 1999.
Incidentally, the NATO campaign also included a strike on the headquarters of Radio Television of Serbia (RTS), killing sixteen people and leaving many trapped for days in the damaged building. In this case, HRW was content to assert that this was an “inappropriate” target because “[the] risks involved to the civilian population in undertaking this urban attack grossly outweigh any perceived military benefit.”
It is important to remember that this NATO campaign was officially justified as a humanitarian intervention designed to protect the Kosovo Albanians from Serbian aggression. Yet, in the course of this campaign, civilian infrastructure was deliberately targeted and destroyed; cluster bombs were used, causing the death of an estimated 90-150 civilians; and, according to the report cited above, “inventory shortages and cost considerations” led to the replacement of precision-guided weapons with “dumb” bombs.
As the report on the NATO campaign illustrates, there is no simple and straightforward definition of what constitutes a war crime. But at HRW, a very simple and straightforward definition is emerging: whenever the IDF is involved, it must be a war crime.