Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Opinion: End the Double Standard in the Middle East - Lotte Leicht and Tom Porteous

Financial Times Deutschland (translated from German), February 10, 2009 - A failure by the EU to seek accountability for perpetrators of war crimes in the Middle East risks undermining international criminal law. This is equally valid for Israel and Hamas.

Now that the fog of war is lifting from the Gaza Strip, it is clear that both Israel and Hamas have perpetrated serious violations of the laws of war. The question is: will the impunity for war crimes that has long characterised the Israeli-Palestinian conflict persist? And if it does, how much damage will that do to the credibility of international justice and to institutions like the International Criminal Court. The EU worked hard to create this institution to secure accountability in other places where grave crimes have been committed such as Darfur.

From a laws-of-war perspective, the situation in Gaza is not a pretty one. Human Rights Watch is currently investigating a wide range of alleged violations by Israel and Hamas. These alleged violations include using weapons, such as heavy artillery, indiscriminately in densely populated areas; using civilians as human shields or otherwise placing them at unnecessary risk; firing on or otherwise preventing ambulances and emergency medical care from reaching persons in need; firing rockets deliberately or indiscriminately into civilian areas; targeting persons seeking to communicate their civilian status with white flags.

Every victim brutalized by this conflict has a name and so too do the individuals responsible for perpetrating and ordering atrocities. Justice for war crimes is not simply a moral luxury. Those whose lives the Gaza conflict has shattered have just as much a right to see justice done as victims of war crimes anywhere in the world.

Unacceptable double standard

Unfortunately, past experience shows that neither Israel nor Hamas can be counted on to conduct genuine investigations or to hold their forces accountable for war crimes.

Although the EU is not always consistent, it has taken leadership in pursuing accountability and justice for war crimes and invoking punitive measures for impunity around the world. However, past experience shows that the EU has been unwilling to apply those policies and mechanisms for crimes committed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

This double standard has to change. There is a growing recognition that impunity entrenches and prolongs armed conflict and civilian suffering. There is also evidence from the Balkans, West Africa and Latin America that when nations come together to pursue accountability for the perpetrators of the most serious crimes-Charles Taylor, Radovan Karadic, Slobodan Milosevic, Augusto Pinochet-the results can be positive. Such prosecutions recognize the humanity of victims and send a strong message of deterrence. This message can in turn contribute to stabilizing an entire region....

Lotte Leicht is EU Director of Human Rights Watch. Tom Porteous is London Director of the same organization.

The original Op-Ed in German is here.

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