Should Australia participate in the proposed United Nations sanctioned peacekeeping mission for the Middle East? Both John Howard and Alexander Downer have indicated Australia would be willing to commit troops, subject to certain conditions. While the final terms of a Security Council resolution on Lebanon is still being thrashed out, it seems clear the UN will demand a ceasefire and authorise the creation of an international force.
Pivotal to the success of that mission will be the rules of engagement and whether the UN force will be able to actively disarm Hezbollah or only use defensive force.
There are two key issues surrounding Australia's ability to contribute to the proposed UN force.
The first is capacity. With Australian troops currently committed in various overseas missions, the ADF is already overstretched. On Friday, the Government announced a further deployment to Afghanistan while also pledging to commit to Iraq for the long haul.
The past six months has also demonstrated the need for Australia to rapidly deploy to regional trouble spots such as the Solomons and East Timor. If Australia was to overcommit to Lebanon, its capacity to respond to regional crises at our back door would be significantly compromised. Without modern tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and suitable artillery capacity, Australian forces would also be ill-equipped for any Lebanese mission. Any contribution, then, to a UN force could only be to fill a niche, and this seems to be accepted by the Government.
Second, can Australia even credibly play the role of a neutral and seek to keep the peace? Our position has most likely been compromised due to an unquestioning support for Israel. Consider Downer's comments to the Australian Jewish News on July 27 when he attacked UN emergency relief co-ordinator Jan Egeland for stating that Israel had committed breaches of international humanitarian law: "I mean is it a breach of international humanitarian law to attack your enemy, self defence is not a breach of international humanitarian law." This view not only reflects Australia's pro-Israeli position but also shows a limited understanding of the law of war and gives no weight to the delicate balance between aggression and self defence.
Two principles of international law are crucial in this conflict. The first is Israel's unquestioned right of self-defence found in both the United Nations Charter and customary international law. That the right exists against terrorist organisations such as Hezbollah is also recognised in Security Council resolutions including those adopted immediately after the September 2001 terrorist attacks on the US and by the conduct of nations such as the October 2001 American-led multinational military intervention in Afghanistan. However, and this is often overlooked, the right of self defence is not unlimited. The right is constrained by principles of immediacy, necessity, and proportionality. A country which suffers a small pin prick of an attack cannot therefore respond with a full-scale bombardment.
Israel commenced its military campaign against Hezbollah forces in Lebanon after the capture of two of its soldiers in mid-July. While Israel acted immediately and out of necessity to release its soldiers, whether the response has been proportionate is highly doubtful. The scale and intensity of the Israeli military campaign has clearly moved well beyond efforts to retrieve its soldiers.
The objective has now become the neutralisation of Hezbollah, if not the complete destruction of its military capacity and potential to launch attacks upon Israel. While Israel's right to defend itself against continued Hezbollah rocket attacks cannot be questioned, and inevitably in a conflict such as this there are responses of a retaliatory nature, the bombing of large tracts of southern Lebanon and the regular incursions by Israeli ground forces into Lebanese territory has taken Israel's response well beyond what could legitimately be characterised as proportionate to the threat that it faced and continues to face.
While Australia's tacit support for Israel's aggression is not surprising given the close bilateral relationship, the Government may also be silently thankful of the precedent being established for neutralising terrorist forces lest it is faced with a similar challenge within our own region.
Israel is also bound by international humanitarian law based upon the 1949 Geneva Conventions. Contrary to some assertions, Israel can legitimately attack Hezbollah fighters and justify the targeting of certain objects based on military necessity. However, humanitarian law requires a distinction between civilian and military targets. While inevitably in the midst of a sustained air and ground assault upon urban areas civilians will become caught up in the conflict and losses will be sustained, utmost care must be taken to avoid innocent civilians. This is particularly difficult when Hezbollah has deliberately sited its rocket launchers within civilian populations.
Despite its protestations to the contrary, the evidence to date does not suggest that Israel has exercised the necessary level of care. Housing blocks have been reduced to rubble, leaving thousands homeless. Villages have been bombed without justification. Aid and humanitarian workers including the Red Cross have been targeted.
This is not to let Lebanon off the hook. Its failure to control Hezbollah must be clearly acknowledged and it must bear some responsibility. It has failed to meet the requirements of Security Council Resolution 1559 calling for the disarming and disbanding of Hezbollah.
However, do Lebanon's failings justify the scale and intensity of the Israeli assault?
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