“A treaty that effectively prevents nations and people under attack from acting in legitimate self-defense is worse than useless — it is also immoral.”
In the recent Lebanon war, Israel was attacked with daily barrages of hundreds of rockets, launched indiscriminately by Hezbollah from trucks and other platforms located in towns, villages and fields. These weapons struck Israeli hospitals, schools, houses, workplaces, streets and even civilians in their cars. The Israel Defense Forces had the obligation to stop these deaths and injuries. In the effort to meet this requirement, the IDF used different tactics and weapons, including cluster bombs, which break into multiple submunitions in order to hit weapons, including rocket launchers, whose precise location is unknown or changing.
During and after the war, the United Nations Human Rights Council and powerful NGOs, such as Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International, condemned Israel repeatedly for using cluster bombs. The NGOs are running a campaign for a treaty to ban the use of these weapons, and have issued a barrage of press releases, reports and statements on the injuries caused to Lebanese by the remnants of these weapons. According to HRW, the U.S. government heeded its demand to halt deliveries of these weapons to Israel during the war. On the surface, it would seem that the campaign on this issue was both morally justified and effective.
But a deeper examination of the issues shows fundamental flaws that undermine both the moral argument and the claim of HRW, Amnesty and other NGOs to a central role in negotiating arms-limitation agreements. Morally and logically, every nation under attack has the right to self-defense, and the rules of law, including various weapons bans that have been adopted, cannot result in greater slaughter of civilians.
The first treaty banning the use of chemical weapons after the mass casualties of World War I was adopted in large part because they were also ineffective and did not fulfill any military objectives. Other agreements and prohibitions, such as those placed on aerial bombardment, were short-lived and largely ignored because of their military importance, both for offense and self-defense. The efforts to expand partial agreements on the prohibition of land mines have failed precisely because in many cases no one has presented a better way to protect people, facilities and nations from attack. In an environment of bitter conflict and terrorism, the use of land mines for security can be the lesser of the evils.
Similarly, in repeated condemnations of Israel for the use of cluster munitions, activist groups such as Amnesty and HRW failed to suggest a realistic and effective alternative against deadly rocket attacks. Although largely missing from HRW’s campaigns, there is no question that morally Hezbollah’s arsenal of thousands of Syrian and Iranian-made rockets purposely used to kill as many Israeli civilians as possible constitutes the core violation of human rights and an obvious violation of international law. Massive Israeli ground and air attacks designed to find and destroy the rocket-launchers scattered throughout Southern Lebanon would have taken many more lives. This is the ugly calculus of war, and attempts to ignore this reality of human existence are both irrational and unethical.
In their campaign against Israeli use of cluster munitions, HRW and Amnesty are also coming with unclean hands and a not-so-hidden agenda. Officials from both played an active role in the infamous NGO forum of the 2001 Durban conference, which adopted a strategy to delegitimize the very existence of Israel. Their numerous publications and statements condemning Israeli responses to Palestinian terror far outnumbered the organization’s reports condemning suicide bombings. In this context, HRW Executive Director Kenneth Roth, who clearly has no military expertise or experience, demanded that Israel arrest Palestinian terrorists in Gaza and Jenin, and bring them to trial — a policing approach that, when attempted, often resulted in much greater violence. In the case of the cluster-bomb campaign, HRW is not even suggesting an alternative.
These NGO officials have also used the millions of dollars at their disposal to join the political crusade against Israel’s security barrier and in promoting dubious claims that fed boycott campaigns. The allegations in these reports were based on false or unverifiable claims of Palestinian “eyewitnesses” — a pattern repeated by HRW and Amnesty during the Lebanon war. When Israel tried to use largersingle-explosive weapons against Hezbollah rocket attacks, this was condemned as “indiscriminate force.” Every Israeli defense is labeled as unacceptable.
HRW’s central role in promoting international agreements to ban land mines is also tainted by a strong dose of anti-Israel propaganda. In a conference on this issue that took place in Geneva in 2000, in which I participated, HRW-funded participants from Palestinian, Egyptian and other NGOs ignored the land-mine issues and instead used the opportunity for unrelated Israel-bashing. The annual report on land mines distributed at the conference, and published by an HRW affiliate, featured a bogus cover photo related to Israel, and the chapters on Israel and the Palestinians included false or misleading information.
In contrast, those who are motivated by genuine humanitarian concerns must present workable alternatives in pursuing prohibitions on specific weapons, including cluster bombs. A treaty that effectively prevents nations and people under attack from acting in legitimate self-defense is worse than useless — it is also immoral.
Gerald M. Steinberg, editor of www.ngo-monitor.org , directs the Program on Conflict Management at Bar-Ilan University in Israel.He is a member of the Board of Directors of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.