UN rights head sees possible Mideast war crimes
By Richard Waddington and Robert Evans
GENEVA (Reuters) - The scale of killing and maiming of civilians in Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian territory of Gaza could constitute war crimes, the United Nations human rights chief said on Wednesday.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour said international humanitarian law was clear on the need to protect non-combatants in any conflict. "This obligation is also expressed in international criminal law, which defines war crimes and crimes against humanity," she said.
"The scale of the killings in the region, and their predictability, could engage the personal criminal responsibility of those involved, particularly those in a position of command and control," she said, without directly accusing anyone.
In a statement, Arbour expressed "grave concern over the continued killing and maiming of civilians in Lebanon, Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory".
Arbour, a former Canadian Supreme Court judge and war crimes prosecutor, said the "indiscriminate shelling" of cities and the bombing of sites where civilians would suffer were unacceptable.
Israeli air strikes have accounted for most of the 293 deaths in Lebanon in the eight-day-old war which began after Hizbollah guerrillas kidnapped two Israeli soldiers.
The Lebanese Shi'ite militia has rained rockets down on northern Israeli towns and villages. Twenty-nine Israelis have died in the violence.
Israel's offensive in Lebanon has coincided with a three-week-old push into the Gaza Strip to retrieve another soldier, seized by Palestinian militants on June 25.
In a separate statement, the U.N. special envoy on the right to health said Israel's destruction of Gaza's only power station could constitute a war crime and should be investigated.
New Zealander Paul Hunt said lack of power had caused a serious water shortage and affected sewage disposal for tens of thousands of households in the Gaza Strip. Reported cases of diarrhoea had risen 163 percent compared with last year, he added.
As international concern mounted for civilians caught up in the bloodshed, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) suggested that Israel had stretched the agreed rules of war with its air and land operations in Lebanon.
The Swiss-based body, the recognised guardian of the Geneva Conventions on the conduct of war, said it had told the Israelis and Hizbollah that both must avoid targeting civilians.
Under the Conventions, first formulated after World War One and expanded after World War Two, countries involved in international conflicts are obliged to observe measure in their response to actions by an opposing side.
"The ICRC reminds the parties to the conflict that the obligation to distinguish between civilians and civilian objects, on the one hand, and military objectives, on the other, is at the core of international humanitarian law and must be complied with at all times," it said in a statement.