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The Crisis in Lebanon: A Q&A With Larry Cox of Amnesty International

After Israel’s bombing and killing of dozens of civilians in Qana, Lebanon, Amnesty International issued a statement calling for a ceasefire, and condemning both Israel and Hezbollah for breaking humanitarian laws. To stop the conflict that began in early July, Larry Cox, Amnesty International USA’s Executive Director, who took over in May, says a ceasefire is the only way. It’s also the only way to protect civilians, who have been dying faster than combatants. I spoke with Mr. Cox in his office in midtown Manhattan overlooking Madison Square Garden.

–Joel Whitney

How many civilians have been killed so far in the conflict in Lebanon?

It’s very hard to know exactly. As is often the case in these kinds of conflicts, counting who’s been killed gets obscured by the combat itself. I think the last figure we used was 560 [civilians, as of Wednesday August 2]–in Lebanon. Human Rights Watch has used a higher figure. We don’t know; but it’s certainly been hundreds and hundreds of civilians, and it’s growing. Whatever figure I give has, unfortunately, been overtaken by events.

What happened in Qana?

I think what happened in Qana is very characteristic of the kinds of conflicts we now see in the world. Jan Egeland, who is the UN humanitarian relief person, said, “More children are killed in these wars than combatants.” Qana is a case where a house full of refugees was blown up by a missile. On the face of it, this appears to be certainly a possible war crime. Humanitarian law is very clear that one is to avoid harming civilians.

So not enough steps were taken to avoid it or are there claims from Lebanon that it was intentional?

I don’t think it’s a question of it being intentional in that they were trying to kill civilians; that would make no sense whatsoever. It’s that the nature of that kind of indiscriminant shelling leads inevitably to these kinds of incidents. I should say that in the case of Hezbollah, the kinds of missiles it’s shooting, by their very nature, are not precise enough to target military targets. So when you unleash them, you know that quite possibly you’re going to be hitting noncombatants. In the case of Israel, very unfortunately, the evidence is all there. There are just too many civilians dying for it to be possible [for them] to say, “We are taking every possible step to avoid hitting civilians.” The reason we have called for a ceasefire is because that’s the only way that you’re going to avoid killing large numbers of civilians–certainly of killing more men, women and children, who are not combatants, than enemy soldiers.

After Qana, Israel agreed to a 48-hour ceasefire, which lasted–

Not very long.

Less than 48 hours?

Certainly less than 48 hours.

What broke that down?

I think from the beginning it was not really a ceasefire. It was a cessation of a kind of long-distance firing of missiles. They had said from the beginning they would continue to use shelling in order to protect their ground troops. And this can’t offer real protection for civilians in Lebanon. The interesting thing is that humanitarian law, unfortunately, has largely been ignored, almost completely–

By both sides?

By both sides. And it’s not a law which doesn’t recognize the interests of states to defend themselves against armed attacks. In fact, it’s a law that was created by states who are fully aware that governments need to defend themselves. It’s not rigid, it’s not unrealistic. It simply says that, in armed conflicts, steps have to be taken to protect those who are not guilty of anything, who have not been participating in armed conflict, but who just happen to be living amidst the conflict. And we have seen, in case after case after case, that, as Jan Egeland has said, “More children are dying than combatants.” There is something dramatically wrong in a world where war leads to more women and children and civilian men being killed, by far, than enemy soldiers.

Is it true, as Israel has said, that human shields are being placed in harm’s way?

Using human shields is a violation of humanitarian law–clearly.

Is there evidence that’s been the case?

I think there is evidence that that’s the case. We’re just now on the ground. I think most of the human rights organizations are still carrying out their investigations. So, I don’t know that anyone has definitive proof in particular cases of what’s happened. And it would be wrong to presume that. But the overall picture is a very clear one. And I think it’s clear that both sides have disregarded the need to protect civilians. The problem with Israel’s argument is that humanitarian law is also clear that even if human shields are used, that doesn’t take away the obligation not to take actions which will result in the deaths of large numbers of civilians.

And so what we have are violations of humanitarian law, which sounds very abstract until you see the pictures of the people that were pulled from Qana. That’s what violations of humanitarian law mean. It means kids sleeping, trying to escape from the horrors of war, being blown up. It means rockets coming down on communities that have not taken up arms on anybody. You know, schoolchildren, just regular people. That’s what violations mean. And the challenge for all of us now is how are we going to make this mean something? Or are we really prepared to move into a world where there are no rules of warfare, where there are no holds barred?

Don’t Israel’s warnings to civilians to evacuate villages help protect those civilians and help Israel fulfill humanitarian law?

The rules on that are also very clear. You are supposed to give warning, but it has to be effective warnings. It doesn’t do any good when people don’t have a real capacity to act on that warning. Roads are being destroyed, people are poor, they don’t have transport or financial resources to move to another place.

So the warnings should come with the means to evacuate?

If you want to give a meaningful warning then you have to also provide for some way for people to act on it. Even then there’s a great danger, because if Hezbollah warned everybody in Haifa, “We’re going to shell Haifa. You should leave,” nobody would expect, the Israelis certainly wouldn’t expect that to be a justification for bombing Haifa. You can’t simply say people should get out and then just disregard the fact that people can’t or won’t. You still have an obligation to do everything in your power to prevent people from being harmed because they’re trying to live in their homes.

What consequences can there be–or should there be–for the violation of these humanitarian laws?

The first step, which we’ve called for, is to have an investigation, where the facts are known and people are held accountable. Ultimately it’s very difficult to imagine a situation where those who are committing these crimes will be effectively brought before a court of law. But they certainly should be brought before a court of public opinion. Otherwise, as I say, we’re in danger of moving into a world where the rules mean nothing, and where people feel justified in violating them. If it’s possible, people who are found, after an investigation, to have deliberately committed crimes against humanity, or war crimes, should be brought before an international tribunal and be tried and sentenced.

Irene Khan, Amnesty’s Secretary General, said in a statement, “It is utterly shameful that governments who have influence over Israel and Hizbollah and who could help end this crisis, continue to prioritize political and military interests over innocent lives of civilians.” I presume she was referring to the US. Tell me Amnesty’s view of the U.S.’s role in this conflict.

All governments have the responsibility to try to enforce humanitarian law, and should be urging for this killing of civilians to stop. If the only effective way of stopping it is through a ceasefire then they should be urging for a ceasfire. I think it’s been demonstrated that that is the only effective way to stop it. That doesn’t mean there doesn’t have to be meaningful efforts to resolve some underlying causes of this conflict, including the disarming of groups like Hezbollah. But it does mean that you can’t have a situation where children and noncombatant civilians are paying the price for the failure of Hezbollah to honor that commitment.

What was your reaction to the news that the United States was speeding up its shipments of missiles to Israel, given these violations?

We’ve also called for the cessation of arms transfers and certainly the cessation of arms transfers that are being used directly in the killing of civilians. And that would include both the arms shipments to Israel but also the arms shipments to Hezbollah. It’s one of the major challenges we all face in this world, that the transfer of arms–both large arms in the case of Hezbollah and small arms in the case of conflicts around the world–is carried out virtually unimpeded by governments or regulations, and openly.

Business is good in arms dealing.

Business is good, yeah. And we’ve done repeated reports on the way that arms transfers fuel these kinds of human rights violations, and are pressing, yet without success, to get some kind of norms that would slow it down. In this case it’s clear that there has to be a cessation of the military buildup.

What else needs to happen to end this conflict?

Clearly there are deep-rooted problems in the region that have to be addressed–those include not only the political as well as the economic dimensions where people are living in such extreme poverty, as is the case in Gaza, for example, that violence will arise. So, yeah, there are lots of things that need to be done. I think we would argue that what doesn’t need to be done is more killing of people who are just trying to live their lives peacefully.

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