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Expert reveals Lebanon human rights abuses

Many villages in southern Lebanon were destroyed during the fighting Keystone

A Swiss international law expert tells swissinfo that there were a number of violations of the Geneva conventions during this summer's conflict in Lebanon.

Walter Kälin presented a report on Wednesday to the United Nations Human Rights Council following a visit to the Middle East with three other experts.

Recognised for his contributions to international humanitarian law, Kälin was one of the driving forces behind the creation of the Human Rights Council.

The Bern University professor travelled to the Middle East as the UN secretary-general’s special representative on the human rights of internally displaced persons.

Israel launched a major military campaign against the Lebanon-based Shia Muslim armed group Hezbollah in July this year, after Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers. A UN-brokered ceasefire ended the conflict on August 14.

swissinfo: You went to Lebanon and Israel. What did you see there?

Walter Kälin: A number of things stuck out for me. First of all the destruction, especially in southern Lebanon where whole villages suffered from the Israeli attacks. In the south of Beirut, big buildings were also destroyed.

The meetings we had with victims and their families in Lebanon and Israel also made a strong impression on me.

What is impressive though is the energy shown by people who want to go back to a normal life and rebuild what was destroyed during this war. This is something we saw in Lebanon and northern Israel.

swissinfo: What are the main findings of your report?

W.K.: Concerning the Israeli forces, we reached the conclusion that there were violations of human rights and international humanitarian law. The Israeli military attacked many civilian targets claiming they were being used as military installations.

It seems obvious the Hezbollah militia made such use of civilian buildings. The destruction caused by the Israelis makes it difficult to conclude that each site was a legitimate target. Ambulances were hit for example, as were people fleeing the fighting. And we did not receive any convincing explanations from the Israeli authorities.

It is also clear that Hezbollah attacked civilian targets in northern Israel or decided not to distinguish between civilian and military targets. So it also committed violations of international humanitarian law.

swissinfo: Non-governmental organisations have accused Israel of war crimes. Was your mission able to investigate these allegations?

W.K.: On August 11, the Human Rights Council decided to set up a special committee whose job will be to investigate these claims. War crimes don’t just include violations of international humanitarian law. You have to find out the intent behind these violations, and we couldn’t do that during such a short mission.

swissinfo: What are your recommendations?

W.K.: We have sent a series of recommendations to the Lebanese government concerning reconstruction efforts and the protection of 200,000 people displaced by the fighting.

We have also recommended that the Israelis launch their own investigation into possible war crimes. We are also asking them to take a closer look at reconstruction. We came to the conclusion that some members of the Israeli Arab population were discriminated against, since there was a lack of bunkers in Arab towns and villages and because this specific group is not being compensated as well as others.

We are also asking the Human Rights Council to find out if the Hezbollah committed war crimes, and requesting the international community take a closer look at the use made of cluster bombs.

It is almost impossible to return to many parts of southern Lebanon given the large amount of unexploded ordinance of this type. We are demanding Israel’s help to find these bombs.

swissinfo-interview: Frédéric Burnand in Geneva

In August, the Geneva-based Human Rights Council mandated a special mission to investigate the fallout from the Lebanese conflict.

The mission’s experts were Walter Kälin, Miloon Kothari (special rapporteur on adequate housing), Philip Alston (special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions) and Paul Hunt (special rapporteur on physical and mental health).

The mission travelled to Israel and Lebanon for one week in September.

Walter Kälin is a professor of constitutional and international public law at Bern University.
In 2004 he was appointed UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s representative on the human rights of internally displaced persons.

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