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Opinions Archive 1999

NATO Urged to Respect Humanitarian Law

Inquiry into Aleksinac Bombing Demanded

(New York, April 7, 1999) — NATO forces are required to respect international humanitarian law, the laws of war, by minimizing damage to civilian areas and populations, Human Rights Watch asserted today. The group called for an immediate investigation into Monday's bombing of Aleksinac village, which reportedly killed five civilians and injured fifty.

"The countries of the NATO alliance must take all steps to minimize civilian casualties in times of war," said Holly Cartner, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central Asia Division. "Warfare has its unintended tragic consequences. But now the alliance must take visible and deliberate steps to make sure that these are minimized. This includes holding accountable those who might have made such a mortal mistake."

On Monday evening, three NATO missiles were reported to have landed in a civilian neighborhood of Aleksinac, a village about 100 miles south of Belgrade, killing five civilians. NATO regretted the loss of life and called the incident an accident of war. The intended target, NATO said, was a military barracks positioned nearby.

International humanitarian law is the set of rules governing the conduct of parties to international and internal armed conflicts. It is comprised of the four Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their protocols, which are binding on all states and belligerents.

The cornerstone of this body of law is the duty to protect the life, health and safety of civilians and other non-combatants such as soldiers who are wounded, captured, or who have laid down their arms. It is absolutely prohibited to attack, injure or deport such persons.

All warring parties -- in this case Serbian and Yugoslav forces, the Kosovo Liberation Army, and the NATO alliance -- bear a responsibility to take precautions, including doing everything feasible to verify targets are not civilian objects, minimizing incidental loss of civilian life, removing the civilian population from the vicinity of military objectives, effectively warning the civilian population in advance of attack unless circumstances do not permit, and avoiding locating military objectives within or near densely populated areas..It is forbidden at all times to direct attacks against civilians or civilian objects (such as places of worship, historic monuments, or hospitals). Parties to the conflict may not use civilians to shield military objectives from attack. Military objects are those that make an effective contribution to military action; where there is doubt, the object shall be presumed to be civilian.

A corollary to civilian immunity is a basic prohibition on indiscriminate attacks. An attack is "indiscriminate" when its effect cannot be limited and so harms military and civilian targets without distinction. Indiscriminate attacks include those which may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, and/or damage to civilian objects which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated. Typical examples include tactics such as carpet bombing populated areas which have military targets interspersed or laying land mines that will kill both soldiers and civilians for decades.

For Further Information:
Fred Abrahams (1-212) 216-1270
Holly Cartner (1-212) 216-1277

Source: Human Rights Watch

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