Crimes of War

Despite being written in semi-legalese, The Goldstone report [warning: 600-page PDF] never ceases to be an interesting read. I keep finding these dry little statements of fact that are either heartbreaking or pithy wordings that somehow encapsulate the breadth of the crimes committed. Here are a couple of the ones I found today.

First off, the account of the shelling of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) compound in the southern Rimal area of Gaza City, on January 15th of this year. It's interesting reading. You find it on page 162 to 174 of the PDF.

(photo by Flickr user blhphotography CC-BY)

Basically what happened here was that the Israeli forces, despite having GPS coordinates and despite at least forty telephone calls from UN leaders in Gaza and Palestine to Israeli authorities through established channels on that morning and provable contact between those authorities and the field personnel of the army, they repeatedly shelled a United Nations compound where 700 Palestinians were taking refuge, with illegal white phosphorous grenades.

The report is blistering in its dismantling of the Israeli arguments defending this attack, summed up in this paragraph:
The question then becomes how specialists expertly trained in the complex issue of artillery deployment and aware of the presence of an extremely sensitive site can strike that site ten times while apparently trying to avoid it.
They also note that the area struck by the shells was within one football pitch of one another, and coincidentally, the incendiary weapons all happened to strike near the enormous fuel depot of several hundred thousand litres of fuel on the site. The entire site was two football pitches in size.

Another paragraph that struck me deals with the equally horrific attack on the Al-Quds hospital, in direct violation of Geneva Convention IV §18 and §19. The Israeli military also used illegal white phosphorous shells here. The story that really struck me was this one:
596. The doctors with whom the Mission spoke all occupied senior positions but also witnessed the events that occurred throughout that day. The Mission was impressed with their objectivity and the genuine distress several of them showed at being unable to help or protect the sick and wounded who had come to the hospital. Throughout that day many of the staff, including the doctors, took exceptional risks to stop fire spreading, including by removing white phosphorous wedges from near diesel tanks. One doctor in particular showed remarkable courage. He left the hospital to drive an ambulance through artillery shelling as he sought to bring an eight-year-old girl to al-Shifa hospital for treatment which he was no longer able to provide in al-Quds. Having taken the girl there, he drove back to the hospital in the same conditions to continue assisting the efforts to fight the fires.
The 8 year-old girl, who had been shot in the jaw by an Israeli sniper (since the snipers prepare their shots, presumably while she was engaged in launching terror rockets against Israeli settlements or other military activities), later died from her injuries. The report concludes that she would not have died had the attack on the hospital not occurred and considers the Israeli military responsible for her death.


Longtime readers of this blog have probably noticed that I will occasionally write about human rights, international humanitarian law, crimes of war or crimes against humanity, which are all topics I've been interested in since at least high school. For two years in high school and on and off afterwards I was an active member of my school Amnesty Youth group. It was a great time, and I learned most of what I know about international law and human rights -- which isn't a lot compared to most of the wonderful activists I met in Amnesty -- during those two years. Then, just as I was starting university and entering my last time in Amnesty, I bought a book called Crimes of War: What the Public Should Know. I think more people should do themselves the favour of reading that book. It is by far the best introduction to the topic I know of.

If I'm completely honest, I pretty much bought it impulsively because it's an uncannily well-designed, physically beautiful book: it is printed on high-quality smooth paper and bound in a strange, tall and narrow format, with a gorgeously simplistic cover and a magazine-like layout. It is thoroughly illustrated with stunning black and white photographs from war zones all over the world taken by some of our time's leading photojournalists, including many from the Magnum group.

But the book turned out to be a remarkable book which I am constantly coming back to. It is basically an illustrated A to Z guide to war crimes and international humanitarian law written by legal scholars and other experts. I know that sounds dry, but it is quite simply relentlessly readable. I read it from cover to cover (it is ingeniously laid out so that if you read it in this order, it proceeds more or less from basic rules to more complex issues). It is meant as a guide for people requiring a basic working knowledge of the laws of war. In this day and age, I'm afraid that means everyone who follows the news, but particularly journalists, commentators, teachers, activists, aid workers, anyone working with international issues and politicians.

I still find myself constantly returning to this book to look things up -- if my brother hasn't stolen it, that is -- and refind my footing when Israel or the US or some other beligerent power tries to relativise what they have done or try to give rhetorical cover to their crimes. It is one of the most useful books I have ever read, and while I have read many other books later on these topics, this one must be the most influential one. I have made a habit of recommending it to everyone over the past couple of years.

So imagine my delight when I discovered yesterday that the entire book has been made availably online for free along with numerous other extra materials, commentary and articles not in the book.

Though you will have to miss out on the great layout on the web, I hope that at least a few of my literally tens of readers will take the time out to read a few articles or maybe even the whole thing over a few days. It's a book that taught me a lot proportional to the amount of work I had to put into it. I can only second the blurb on the back, from W. Pfaff of the International Herald Tribune: "A reference work that has no counterpart ... civilization is in debt to all [its contributors]."

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Blogger S said...

This post was so good that it deserved a comment, even if I have nothing to add. Thank you.

November 05, 2009 4:18 pm  
Blogger mrtn said...

Thank you! That comment was so nice that it deserves an answer.

November 05, 2009 4:55 pm  
Blogger Mikkel said...

I resent the implication that I may or may not have "stolen" your "book".

November 08, 2009 11:06 pm  
Blogger mrtn said...

That's okay. I may or may not have "given it up for lost" and "bought a new one".

November 09, 2009 10:09 pm  

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