Twelve days ago, the UN Commissioner for Human Rights condemned the Libyan government's repeated attacks on civilians and civilian facilities in Misrata and warned that these attacks could be treated as criminal.
"Under international law," said Commissioner Navi Pillay, "the deliberate targeting of medical facilities is a war crime, and the deliberate targeting or reckless endangerment of civilians may also amount to serious violations of international human rights law or international humanitarian law."
Commissioner Navi is absolutely right. Under Section II, Article 85, item 3a of the 1977 Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949: "grave breaches of this Protocol" include "making the civilian population or individual civilians the object of attack."
This protocol, we might say, is precisely what justifies our own actions in the Libyan conflict. Officially, the only reason for which we launched our attacks on Libya, and for which we now support the NATO airstrikes against it, is to protect its civilian population.
But it is now clear that NATO is seeking to assassinate Muammar Gaddafi and will not hesitate to kill civilians in pursuing this end. Last night, a NATO airstrike on the Tripoli home of his youngest son, Seif al-Arab Moammar Gaddafi, failed to hit Gaddafi himself but killed Seif along with three of Gaddafi's grandchildren.
Can anyone explain to me why this NATO airstrike on the house of Seif Gaddafi did not recklessly endanger the lives of his children, or why the children of Seif Gaddafi are not protected by the 1977 Protocol to the Geneva Conventions, let alone by our official "mission" to protect the civilian population of Libya?
I also have another question. How many more Libyan children are we willing to kill?
One clue to an answer appears in a study just published by King's College London and said to be "the most detailed assessment so far of civilian deaths in the course of the [Iraqi] conflict." According to this study, coalition forces caused 12% of the 92,614 civilian deaths that occurred as a result of armed violence in Iraq between March 20, 2003 and March 19, 2008. In other words, our side killed 18,522 Iraqi civilians, more than six times the number killed in the attacks of 9/11. So it's safe to bet that the number of Iraqi children killed by our side numbers in the thousands.
And what about Afghanistan? Though (to my knowledge) we don't yet have anything like the figures compiled for Iraq, the most conservative estimate would put the total number of Afghan children killed by coalition forces in the hundreds. And while our commanders in Afghanistan have repeatedly pledged to avoid civilian casualties, we go on inflicting them. Just two months ago, General David Petraeus had to apologize for a helicopter strike that killed nine children collecting firewood in a remote part of Kunar province.
According to ancient Greek legend, the Mycenean king Agamemnon sacrificed his own daughter to stir up winds for the ships that took his forces into the war against Troy. President Obama, of course, would never do such a thing. Even to gain decisive victory in all three of the wars we are now waging, he would never dream of sacrificing either Malia or Sasha. And as a civilized nation, we can scarcely imagine sacrificing children for any purpose.
But as a fighting nation, we have already sacrificed thousands of them, and for the foreseeable future we have absolutely no plans to stop doing so.
So how many more children are we willing to kill in order to "protect" the civilians of Libya? The answer is brutally, searingly, inescapably clear: as many as it takes to do the job.