Our country has long been recognized as a global leader in human rights and commitment to international law, wielding moral authority much larger than its size. But our government’s unreserved support for the conduct of Israel’s recent military actions in Gaza has eroded Canada’s hard-won credibility and moral standing.
In its statements about the conflict, the Canadian government focused exclusively on Israel’s right to defend itself, disregarding its serious violations of international humanitarian law. After a mortar attack that killed close to 40 civilians near a United Nations-operated school in the Jabalya refugee camp, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs Peter Kent was quick to react. “Hamas has a terrible responsibility for this,” he said, while admitting that he didn’t know the details of the attack.
Human Rights Watch has documented serious violations of the laws of war on both sides.
The laws of war require parties to a conflict to take all feasible precautions to protect civilians. But Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups fired hundreds of rockets into towns in southern Israel. These rockets are so inaccurate that it is not possible to aim them to discriminate between military targets and civilians. Human Rights Watch also documented cases in which Hamas fired rockets from densely populated areas, thus making civilians in the vicinity vulnerable to counterattacks.
But violations by Hamas do not justify violations by Israel. During the conflict, Israel repeatedly fired 155mm high-explosive artillery munitions into heavily populated areas of Gaza. It also exploded white phosphorus munitions in the air over densely populated areas, killing and wounding civilians and damaging civilian structures.
Israel also has a blockade preventing the movement of essential goods and people into and out of the Gaza Strip, amounting to unlawful collective punishment of the civilian population. The blockade began when Hamas took control of Gaza in June 2007 and continues to this day.
The Israel Defense Forces used an unjustifiably expansive definition of military targets during the operation. It attacked a range of presumptively civilian facilities on the basis that they provided at least indirect support to Hamas's military wing, violating the crucial distinction between civilians and combatants that lies at the heart of the laws of war. The Israeli military’s logic would entitle Hamas to target virtually any government building in Israel on the grounds that its officials and workers indirectly supported the military.
The Israeli military repeatedly justified attacks in civilian areas by saying that it had adequately warned civilians in advance. Human Rights Watch found, though, that the warnings were often vague and frequently did not tell civilians where to find safety. Some warnings told civilians to head to the centers of towns, and in some cases those centers later came under attack.
Hamas has shown no inclination to investigate or prosecute laws of war violations committed by Palestinian fighters. Israel said it was carrying out internal inquiries, but the findings announced by the Israeli military on April 22 lack credibility and confirm the need for an impartial international inquiry.
But both sides need to be held accountable for their serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. Failure to do so would undermine the credibility of international justice mechanisms and institutions. Given the extent of atrocities still being committed around the globe, this is a risk we cannot afford to take.
Canada should vigorously support the investigative commission appointed by the United Nations Human Rights Council, which will look at alleged laws of war violations committed by both sides. The commission is headed by Richard Goldstone, former chief prosecutor of the international war crimes tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda and a highly credible, effective, and impartial jurist. He has made clear his commitment to an independent and impartial investigation and his distinguished career leaves no doubt that he will keep his promise. Mr. Goldstone and his team have now been able to access Gaza through the Rafah crossing, as facilitated by Egypt.
Israel has indicated it does not intend to cooperate with this investigation, while Hamas has promised to cooperate. Canada should urge both sides to cooperate fully, to allow unhindered access to victims, witnesses and others, and to provide relevant information on the military activities under investigation.
Canada can begin the difficult process of regaining our lost leadership in human rights by endorsing Goldstone’s commission, and by pressing both sides in the conflict to cooperate.
Nancy Hamm and Suresh Bhalla are co-chairs of the Canada Committee of Human Rights Watch.
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