08/04/2006 08:07 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Israel, Hezbollah and the Responsibility to Protect Civilians

Despite the ongoing tantrum involving those who insist on cramming the Israel-Hezbollah conflict into a Cold War era rationalization of state self-defense, other more promising discussions are occurring. One of them is rooted in a report issued by Canada five years ago.

In 2001, the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty issued The Responsibility to Protect . The report's central theme is that sovereign states have a responsibility to protect their own citizens from avoidable catastrophe, but that when they are unwilling or unable to do so, that responsibility must be borne by the broader community of states.

Unfortunately, this report was marginalized by 9/11 and subsequent conflicts--yet its importance as a new way to think about international security is evident in the current fight between Israel and Hezbollah. In fact, its recommendations are making their way into the warfighting doctrine of some countries.

The laws of armed conflict are divided into two categories: laws that apply in wars between states (such as the Geneva Conventions of 1949), and a more limited set of rules that apply in civil wars and other "non-international conflicts." The fighting in the Middle East shows how contemporary conflicts are often difficult to accommodate within this division.

A recent exchange on the blog of a British development organization has some interesting insights. Hezbollah, Israel's government and Lebanon's government are criticized while its clear that both Israeli and Lebanese citizens deserve protection.

The current events in Lebanon and their impact on the civilian population raise urgent questions about who is responsible for the protection of civilians. The emergent doctrine of the responsibility to protect (colloquially 'R2P') locates primary responsibility squarely with the government of the state in question. But it also stresses the collective responsibility of other states for protecting civilians of any state facing genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing or crimes against humanity. This response should be the exercise of first peaceful and then, if necessary, coercive (including forceful) steps to protect civilians. While the emphasis of the R2P doctrine has tended towards internal conflict, a key question in the context of the current crisis in the Middle East is what responsibility does the international community have in ensuring that civilians are protected in international conflicts as well?

I found this website in a footnote of a report by BASIC the British American Security Information Council.

Perusing the rest of the footnotes, I was struck by this tale of refugees becoming refugees...Iraqis in Lebanon This one sad family is a symbol of exactly what is wrong with the way we're solving bad international relationships these days. Relying on overwhelming military dominance is a failing strategy for the Israelis just as it is for the USA in post-war Iraq. Hopefully we will learn this lesson before it is taught to us.