Home News and Politics Unveiling the Truth on War Crimes: Discovering Accountability Implications

Unveiling the Truth on War Crimes: Discovering Accountability Implications

Unveiling the Truth on War Crimes: Discovering Accountability Implications

The ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas has led to accusations of war crimes on both sides, following an attack by Hamas on Israeli civilians and retaliatory airstrikes by Israel on the densely populated Gaza Strip.

Under international humanitarian law, combatants are obligated to minimize harm to civilians, even in the midst of conflict. The Geneva Convention, which has been agreed to by 196 states, establishes the guidelines for the treatment of civilians, prisoners of war, and injured soldiers.

In war, what are the obligations of nations, soldiers, and groups?

The history of international law regulating warfare dates back to the first Geneva Convention in 1864. World War II further emphasized the need to expand the scope of the agreement, resulting in the 1949 Geneva Convention. This convention delineated combatants from noncombatants and outlined the obligations of governments and militaries to minimize casualties and the suffering of civilians during wartime.

These rules are not the inventions of human rights groups but are the standards adopted by militaries themselves. Protecting civilians is vital, and all governments, including organizations like Hamas, are bound by these rules.

Who can be held accountable under international humanitarian law?

A violation of the protections under the Geneva Convention, such as deliberately targeting civilians, can lead to prosecution for both leaders and common soldiers. International courts or tribunals and nations exercising “universal jurisdiction” can handle these prosecutions. Universal jurisdiction allows any country’s courts to prosecute war crimes.

Israel, the United States, and Russia are not party to the Rome Statute, which established the International Criminal Court (ICC). However, the ICC has jurisdiction over the West Bank and Gaza Strip due to the Palestinians joining in 2015. Consequently, any Palestinian national can be prosecuted, and any Israeli war crime committed in Palestinian territory can also be prosecuted.

The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem and Israel, established by the United Nations, is collecting and preserving evidence of war crimes committed by all sides since the conflict began in response to the Hamas attacks.

What constitutes a war crime?

International humanitarian law strictly prohibits targeting civilians, indiscriminate firing on civilian areas, and launching attacks that disproportionately impact the civilian population. Deliberate and planned killing of civilians is considered a clear war crime.

The Oct. 7 attack by Hamas that targeted Israeli civilians, resulting in approximately 1,400 deaths, clearly fits within the definition of a war crime. Hamas militants also took around 200 hostages, which is explicitly prohibited by the Geneva Convention.

Even though Hamas is an irregular force, it is subject to the same international humanitarian law as Israel Defense Forces soldiers. International humanitarian law applies to conflicts not only between states but also between states and non-state actors like Hamas.

The principle of proportionality is crucial in determining war crimes. An attack would not be proportional if the expected civilian casualties and damage outweigh the military advantage anticipated from that attack.

The densely populated Gaza Strip presents a significant challenge for the Israeli military, particularly when fighting an irregular force like Hamas. Distinguishing between combatants and non-combatants can be difficult, but this difficulty does not excuse the attacking party from their duty to distinguish between the two.

Israel Defense Forces recently instructed Gazans to evacuate the north of the territory, seemingly in preparation for a ground assault. However, ordering 1.1 million people to evacuate in a few hours is impractical, as it leads to panic and cruelty.

How can war crimes be prosecuted?

Gathering evidence of war crimes can be challenging amid the chaos of war. Human rights activists and journalists often collect important documentation and evidence for future accountability processes.

Suspects can be brought before the International Criminal Court, ad hoc tribunals, or national courts. The ICC encourages genuine national prosecutorial efforts and defers to national governments to prosecute their own offenders.

Israel has previously exercised universal jurisdiction to try Nazi officer Adolf Eichmann for war crimes committed during World War II. However, justice at the international level can be slow and complex, with a low success rate for the ICC.

International arrest warrants can be executed by any of the ICC member nations, requiring the accused to take significant risks when traveling to these countries.

In any conflict, it is not realistic to prosecute every individual. Prioritization and selection of cases are necessary. Top leaders may be held accountable, while lower-ranking soldiers may evade justice.

While the prosecution of war crimes is challenging, it remains essential for holding individuals accountable and upholding the principles of international humanitarian law.

Full article attribution: Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.


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