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What is the responsibility of the international community to protect civilians in the Lebanon crisis?

Written by Sara Pantuliano

(note: this blog was written by Sara Pantuliano and James Darcy)

The current events in Lebanon and their impact on the civilian population raise urgent questions about who is responsible for the protection of civilians. The emergent doctrine of the responsibility to protect (colloquially 'R2P') locates primary responsibility squarely with the government of the state in question. But it also stresses the collective responsibility of other states for protecting civilians of any state facing genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing or crimes against humanity. This response should be the exercise of first peaceful and then, if necessary, coercive (including forceful) steps to protect civilians. While the emphasis of the R2P doctrine has tended towards internal conflict, a key question in the context of the current crisis in the Middle East is what responsibility does the international community have in ensuring that civilians are protected in international conflicts as well?

In this case, the Government of Lebanon is evidently unable to prevent either the activities of Hizbollah or the retaliatory actions of Israel. The civilian population of Lebanon (and parts of Israel) are caught in the middle of this. Whether or not Israel is legally justified in its actions under the self-defence provisions of the UN Charter (Article 51) - or in lawyers' terms, whether it is justified under the ius ad bellum - its actions are contrary to the basic principles of the Geneva Conventions or the ius in bello. These require that a distinction be drawn between civilian and military targets; that due precaution be exercised to prevent incidental damage to civilians and civilian objects; and that any such damage be proportionate to the anticipated military advantage gained. Israel's actions arguably fail all of these tests.

What would the R2P doctrine require of other states in this case? Surely as a minimum that breaches of humanitarian law on both sides be condemned, and that steps be taken to put an end to such practice by whatever means necessary. Hizbollah itself has made the distinction between military and civilian objects difficult, and should be condemned for doing so - as they should for their indiscriminate rocket attacks on Israeli targets. But this cannot justify the indiscriminate nature of the Israeli response. Even if a state acts in self-defence, it is still bound by jus in bello to exercise restraint and avoid civilian casualties and damage to civilian infrastructure. The number of civilian casualties, the attack of the civilian airport in Beirut and Israel's air and sea blockade on Lebanon constitute a breach of those humanitarian obligations. Considering the inability of the Lebanese government to protect its civilians, does the international community not share a collective responsibility to protect civilians by getting Israel - through persuasion or otherwise - to moderate its actions? And can it be conscionable in these circumstances not to support calls for an immediate ceasefire?