Sunday, August 13, 2006

Double Double Effect

Following an interesting exchange in the comments to the previous post, here's a little bit more on the thinking behind it (this is essentially an expanded version of my comment there). Rest assured, I've not joined the "I love Hezbollah" club.

As an aside, here's something for those who are. This video contains scenes which some may find disturbing. It's called "Green Helmet acting as cynical movie director in Qana" and that's a fairly accurate description of what it shows. It does not in any way alleviate the moral responsibility of those who killed the innocent child shown. Clearly, this video is being used as part of a coordinated effort to distract and deflect attention from what Israel is actually doing to Lebanon. (I found it through giyus.)

It does, however, show how Hezbollah have cynically exploited these deaths for propaganda purposes. Keeping a sense of proportion, it is clear that killing children is in a different league morally to this sort of thing. Nevertheless, the use of a dead child as a prop is sickening. There is no "right" side to be on in this bloody mess.

Anyway, back to the point. In the previous post, I pointed out that Israel imposes reporting restrictions on all journalists covering the conflict. My intention was not to suggest that there are no valid military reasons for these restrictions. What I really wanted to highlight was that this policy also has other consequences and that journalists have a duty to make clear what these consequences are.

The key here is Israel's claim that Hezbollah are deliberately targeting civilians in an attempt to kill as many as possible. This, they say, makes what Hezbollah does different from what the IDF has been doing in Lebanon. The Israelis essentially rely on the theory of Double Effect (via) to absolve themselves of responsibility for the deaths of hundreds of Lebanese civilians. I'd recommend reading that post to get a good grasp on the concept but in essence, Double Effect relates to intentions.

Israel say they do not want to kill hundreds of Lebanese civilians, that it isn't their intention, but that it is been an unavoidable consequence of their war against Hezbollah. Intentions are an integral part of moral judgement and their lack of intent, they argue, means that their actions cannot be morally equivalent to Hezbollah's deliberate targeting and killing of civilians.

It seems to me, however, that the restrictions imposed on reporting make it very difficult to establish whether Hezbollah really is deliberately targeting civilians in the way that the Israeli government claims. When a rocket lands in northern Israel we're never told whether there was an obvious military target nearby. There might very well be genuine military reasons for this but it nevertheless distorts the accuracy of the information which is fed into our living room. We are left in the position where it is very dificult to assess Israeli claims regarding Hezbollah's intentions.

In fact, if you look at the Israeli civilian/soldier casualty ratio caused by Hezbollah's military activities, it strongly suggests that Hezbollah are primarily aiming for soldiers, not civilians. This means, in effect, that they too could use the Double Effect theory to justify Israeli civilian deaths. If they are aiming at military targets and the civilian deaths are a foreseen but unintended consequence, this makes a difference morally.

For this reason, journalists reporting from Israel should make clear that they are not able to divulge details of Israeli military postions which may have been the target of Hezbollah rocket attacks. The Israeli claim that Hezbollah is deliberately attempting to kill as many civilians as possible is given greater credibility by the reporting restrictions which they impose on reporters in the field. This might be an unintended consequence but journalists are surely under an obligation to inform their audience that they are unable to provide all of the facts necessary to make a judgement on Hezbollah's military intentions.

Having said all that, I do agree with the linked post above. Double Effect relies on the fact that there are a limited number of options. Neither Israel nor Hezbollah can realistically claim that to be the case here.

In fact, it seems to me to be highly unlikely that either side is deliberately attempting to kill large numbers of civilians. But, both have adopted indiscriminate tactics which reveal a callous disregard for the lives of civilians on the "other side".

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5 comments:

Bag said...

Good points about the military targets.

I however don't believe Hezbollah are all that interested in their targets and just fire in a general direction. They have guided missiles called suicide bombers but don't use them for this. If they were sure of a target they would do so. If a target was confirmed then it is like playing battleships.

I don't believe Hezbollah can fight any other way so unless Israel is going to provide accurate weapons this collateral damage will continue to happen. You can't get more accurate than a suicide bomber but their targets are mainly civilians. Hezbollah has weighed on the side of civilian casualties at any level to be acceptable as a way to weaken the enemy. Israel on the other hand tries to minimise civilian casualties. This is a weakness for them. It should be a strength but for some reason we don't give them points for it.

In reality this is the way these pair will wage war all the time. So it is all down to a matter of your views on the conflict and nothing else.

If I was in Hezbollah I would probably do what they are doing and if I was an Israeli I would do what they are doing. Both are doing what they can in their own way.

One thing is certain. This is the start of a change in the world and the terrorists are starting to fight on too many fronts. Our views will change and maybe then Israels gloves will come off when there is no one to stop them.

Steve G said...

The 'double effect' line of argument is, to my mind, somewhat off-beam, in that it ignores concepts of inevitable consquences and proportionality. If we accept it, then, for example, Saddam's modified Scud missiles certainly couldn't be considered illegal weapons; the objection to them was not that they were particularly destructive but that at the range necessary for them to reach Israel they were so inaccurate that there was no way of knowing when you fired them whether they'd hit an army base or a school.

They fell foul, quite rightly of the prohibition on indiscriminate attack in Article 51 of the 1977 Additional Protocol I to the 1949 Geneva Conventions. While this hasn't been ratified by several countries, including Israel (or, I think, Iraq), there's a very strong case for saying that this prohibition, at least, now forms part of the 'customs of war' and thus applies to everyone, including both Israel and Hezbollah.

Among other things, this particular prohibition means you're supposed to take into account the level of civilian casualties you know your attack is likely to cause; the fact that the other side has illegally set up a mortar position next to a hospital doesn't automatically give you carte blanche to flatten the hospital in the process of taking out the mortar (even if that's the only way to do it). The military necessity of taking out the mortar has to be proportionate to the damage you know you'll cause in the process.

For people who haven't yet come across them, I strongly recommend Crimes of War Project's articles on this and other relevant topics in international humanitarian law.

Mark said...

Ahhh....but Israel forswore any claim to the ethical side of the double-effect argument when it repeatedly leafleted or otherwise warned Lebanese villagers to clear out or be flattened, then bombed the fleeing vehicles they had every reason to expect would be in that vicinity and going in that direction. Just once might have been written off as a mistake. Bombing a convoy of hundreds of vehicles, led by clearly-identifiable white UN vehicles, cannot.

It's true that Israel could just bomb all of Beirut flat, or use nuclear weapons to annihilate Lebanon (a dubious prospect given their own proximity), but the fact they have not shouldn't be any claim to even-handedness or moderation.

Israel depends perhaps more than any other entity on the volatility of public opinion, chiefly that of their backers in the U.S. Israel doesn't make anything that interests U.S. consumers, doesn't have any oil; yet it is the recipient of a full third of American foreign aid. That's not news, everybody knows it. However, what does America - more specifically - U.S. taxpayers, get for its money? A mean dog to keep the rest of the Middle East in line. But it can never be expressed that way, and receive favourable public backing.

This time, Israel is perceived to have gone wildly over the top, and is decidedly losing the PR war. In retrospect, it has proved very wise of Syria and Iran not to directly interfere, although there seems little doubt whom the provocation was meant to draw in, soon after invloving the U.S. in force.

Clues to how badly the Israelis have trod on their dicks abound. I'll be very surprised if it doesn't cost Olmert the Big Chair.

Neil Craig said...

Hezbollah's rockets are not the sort of hi-tech guided sort which provide video coverage as they hit Saddam's bunkers like we are used to. They are very big fireworks whose level of accuracy is that if they hit Israel at all that is a success (a bit like our bombers in early WW2 who classed getting within 5 miles of a german city as a hit). It may not be much by Israeli standards but they are clearly doing as much as they can to target civilians.

Israel, by comparison has gone at least some way out of its way not to kill civilians. Indeed if we accept that Hezbollah's use of inhabited areas as artillery launch sites is not done for military reasons (nobody has been able to provide a military reason why they can't launch from fields) then Hezbollah are deliberately using their own people as human shields by ensuring that counter battery fire will kill civilians.

Steve G said...

Do we know roughly what the Circular Area Probable is of the missiles that Hezbollah is firing? A quick search reveals that the Federation of American Scientists think the 'BM-21 [which is apparently one of their favoured weapons] is well suited for use against troops in the open,' but 'Because these weapons have a large circular area probable (CEP), they are not suited for attacks against point targets', which doesn't really tell us a great deal -- though I suspect that's a tad more accurate than 'if they hit Israel at all that is a success' might suggest.

Makes you wonder, rather, why they were so popular with the Warsaw Pact forces if they were so inaccurate that all you could do was lob them at troops in the open and hope they landed within a few miles of their intended targets.