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Sunday, January 25, 2009

Amnesty: How to mete out justice for Gaza

Fri, 23 Jan 2009 12:30:06 GMT | PressTV

Members of Amnesty International stage a silent protest against the Israeli attacks on Gaza near Taksim Square in central Istanbul on January 17.
The following is an exclusive Press TV interview with Philip Luther, a spokesman for human rights group Amnesty International, on the possible ways to prosecute the war criminals of the Gaza war.

Press TV: Your fact-finding team arrived in Gaza not long before Israel unilaterally declared a ceasefire and the team has been talking to the survivors of this devastating war and has visited hospitals among other things. Tell us about your findings so far.

Luther: The Amnesty International delegation could only get in just before the ceasefire because we were not allowed in by Israel beforehand and we eventually managed to get in via Egypt, via the Egyptian crossing.

And they (members of the Amnesty team) have been phoning you. I just heard John Holmes speaking. They had a similar story to tell. Essentially, it is worse than what they thought. They were expecting it to be bad. They expected the scenes to be shocking. They expected to find large-scale destruction, and it was more than they thought because there had been relatively few pictures, footage from during the actual conflict.

And they say they have been talking to survivors. They have been roaming the streets finding evidence of the use of white phosphorous, for instance. And they have been talking to medical staff who had to treat those who had been either very badly injured or died as a result of their injuries. I mean, obviously we are so relieved that the bloodshed has stopped the killing of civilians. We work on that but much more needs to be done. That is why, you know, we are certainly calling for the blockade on Gaza to be lifted immediately.

Humanitarian aid, food, water and medicine must be allowed in. And crucially there must be accountability. Those who have committed war crimes on both sides, we expect that, must be held to account.

Press TV: Mr. Luther, has the Amnesty's fact-finding delegation been able to verify the use of white phosphorous in Gaza despite the fact that the Israelis categorically deny that?

Luther: Israelis do not categorically deny that they used it. I mean, there have been different reports on that, I know, from different Israeli spokespersons. The problem is that, according to international law, it is not so much as to whether Israel used white phosphorous. It is not a banned weapon as such.

The problem is, and we have been finding evidence of this, the use of white phosphorous against civilians and particularly the use of white phosphorous in densely-populated residential areas in Gaza and, as you know, Gaza is one of the most densely-populated areas in the world.

Gaza City is, of course, very much the center of that. So they (the Amnesty team) have been in streets littered with evidence of use of white phosphorous. They have been to schools that were hit and found burning wedges. Remnants of these weapons are still burning. Talking doctors say very clearly, to begin with, they were surprised by the wounds. They bandaged them up and presumed that they had been able to put a stop to the burn. And when they opened up the bandages again they saw that the wound relit because white phosphorous was still in there. And they burn very very quickly when it touches…comes in contact with oxygen.

Press TV: Have you been able to find anything else? Because there was talk of other banned chemicals, like you said, white phosphorous is not a banned chemical but if it is used against civilians it is. There was talk of depleted uranium being used against the civilians in Gaza. Have you been able to find anything about that?

Luther: Yes, obviously we have seen and studied it very carefully. We have not been able to find direct evidence of that. So far, we have been continuing to explore it. But I note this is important that the International Atomic Energy Agency is raising this very issue with Israel. So that is important. But, as of yet, we cannot add anything to that debate.

Press TV: A few incidents really stand out among whatever that happened in Gaza in those 22 days. One was an extended family whose house the Israeli troops commandeered and then shepherded them to their relatives' place only to bomb it the next day. What kind of crime does that amount to?

Luther: This is just one example. There is mounting evidence of war crimes. War crimes committed by Israel. War crimes committed by Hamas as well. But, in the case that you are citing, clearly various questions are raised there about violations of international humanitarian law which are effectively laws of war. Now what that means, is that if it was a deliberate attack on civilians and increasing evidence that such an act did happen, then if it was carried out with criminal intent, that would amount to war crimes.

Similarly, where attacks have been taking place, there are other examples, that had been disproportionate. That is to say, the Israel war is targeting a Hamas military leader, for instance, but there were, in a few cases, a dozen of the people in a house that they knew would be killed as a result of that strike. That is a disproportionate attack in Amnesty's view and that also, if was carried out with criminal intent, would amount to war crimes.

Obviously, we are pinpointing those. We are investigating those at the moment. But we are also saying that Hamas and other Palestinian groups firing indiscriminate rockets at Israeli population centers amounts to war crimes.

Press TV: The conclusion of what you said Mr. Luther is that Palestinians have strong evidence now to take to an international court and file a lawsuit against the Israelis for committing war crime and crimes against humanity in the Gaza Strip.

Luther: Well, unfortunately, it is always more complicated than that for a number of reasons. But what Amnesty International is saying is that there must be an investigation launched at the highest possible level. That is why we are calling on the UN, preferably the Security Council, to order an investigation. It must be impartial. It must have authority. And it also must have [the jurisdiction] to do the job that it needs to do to look at the evidence of war crimes and other crimes under international law on both sides.

And then you mentioned prosecutions, so that is why the role of the international community is vital. Theoretically, war crimes can be brought to be prosecuted in national courts. But neither the Israeli justice system nor the Palestinian one have shown themselves able to deal with such crimes in the past.

The Security Council could refer the situation in Gaza to the International Criminal Court. Other states could also look into allegations of war crimes and carry out prosecutions. But what it takes is political will and without that political will there will be no investigation. And that is why that is the central call that we are making at the moment to the international community. There must be accountability. There can be no enduring, sustainable and just peace, in fact, in that region without accountability.

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