Why international law matters — the issue of proportionate response

Why international law matters — the issue of proportionate response

The blogger, Head Heeb’s entire July 17 blog entry can be accessed online, here. An abridged version runs below:

….If one party to a conflict decides on an unlimited war, then that frees the other parties to do likewise. In a war without rules, there would be nothing to prevent carpet bombing of Beirut or gas attacks on Haifa or Tiberias, and there would not even be a yardstick by which such things could be condemned. The immunity of civilians from such things depends on the willingness of all parties, even the stronger ones, to acknowledge the law. The doctrine of proportionality is not simply an injunction upon the strong to protect the civilians on the weaker side; instead, it is a principle that must be acknowledged by all sides if they are to appeal for the lives of their own noncombatants.

But there is an even more fundamental reason why international law matters. It is very rare for a military victory, no matter how decisive, to end the underlying conflict, and when the war is over, the issues will still have to be resolved and the conflicting parties rebuilt. Any measure that conserves human life and civilian infrastructure during the war will make those tasks that much easier, while scorched-earth warfare might win an immediate victory at the cost of making the underlying conflict more intractable. Israel, for instance, has won all its wars, some more decisively than others, but even its most spectacular military victories have failed to resolve the political conflicts that lie at their root. The ultimate solution has to be political, and in those cases where wars must be fought, it’s important to fight them in a way that doesn’t make reconstruction and mediation more difficult. That means doing everything possible to protect civilian life on the other side, and not damaging infrastructure in a way that might threaten the postwar stability of the opposing state.

Israel clearly has the right to defend itself against Hezbollah’s attacks, and it can be frustrating to follow the rules when the enemy doesn’t acknowledge them. It can be difficult to hold back and be discriminating in the choice of targets when the enemy claims the right to attack civilian targets or even denies that there is such a thing as an Israeli civilian. Nevertheless, even aside from the fact that conserving human life is a moral good, following international humanitarian law and limiting the scope of warfare is critical if there is to be a hope of multilateral resolution and a postwar political settlement….

R. Seliger comments: I am very concerned and troubled about this question of proportionality and what might be disproportionate, but as one reader responding to Headheeb’s discourse indicated below, the answer is complicated:
“What is ‘proportionate’ when the enemy has vowed to destroy you? What is the lawful answer to ‘We will annihilate you?’ Because that is what Hezbollah and Hamas want, and even though they may not be able to accomplish it now, they openly state it as a long-term goal.

“Pound the %&*# out of these two until they are so damaged that they can never recover. And try to minimize civilian casualties and other unwarranted harm, but that may be difficult when you’re fighting people who think private homes are a good place to store missiles.”

By | 2006-07-19T04:38:00-04:00 July 19th, 2006|Blog|0 Comments

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