FO’s human rights report omits attacks on Lebanon
· Beckett blames deadline as Israel escapes criticism
· Lack of casualty figures to ‘play badly’ with Muslims
Ewen MacAskill, diplomatic editor
Friday October 13, 2006
The Foreign Office came under fire yesterday after omitting any criticism of Israel’s attack on Lebanon in its annual human rights report.
Margaret Beckett, the foreign secretary, told a press conference the omission was because the timing was “a little bit tight” for publication. She said she anticipated the war being dealt with more fully in next year’s report.
But the authors did find sufficient time to include criticism of the Lebanese-based guerrilla group Hizbullah, and one of its backers, Syria, over attacks on Israel and to provide a figure for Israeli, but not Lebanese, casualties.
Although Mrs Beckett said timing was a problem, the report includes a colour photograph of a Lebanese woman amid the rubble of Beirut, and refers to the ceasefire that ended the 34-day war on August 14, and a speech by the Syrian president, Bashar Assad, two days later.
The omission row overshadowed publication of the 356-page report, which lists countries the British government views as being of major concern with regard to human rights, including Burma, North Korea, Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Zimbabwe and Israel, although only in the occupied territories, not in Lebanon. Israel was accused of various abuses for attacking civilian areas, including the use of cluster bombs. Well over 1,000 Lebanese civilians died in the conflict.
At the time, Tony Blair and the US were suspected of bias towards Israel by refusing to call for an immediate ceasefire. The report’s omission will raise further suspicions in the Arab world.
But a Foreign Office source said yesterday that, having spoken to one of the report’s authors, the omission was an oversight. He said the British embassy in Damascus had sent information on Syria and Hizbullah for inclusion in the report but there was no such communication from the British embassy in Israel.
Tim Hancock, UK campaigns director of Amnesty International, said the organisation welcomed the report as a valuable tool for tracking human rights, but was concerned that key issues were omitted.
He said: “It is absolutely right that the government strongly criticise Hizbullah’s rocket attacks, but deeply worrying that this report makes no specific mention of Israel’s illegal targeting of Lebanese infrastructure – anything from roads, bridges, supermarkets and petrol stations, to water and fuel storage plants.
“Soon after the Israel-Hizbullah conflict, Amnesty International published reports on possible war crimes committed by both sides – and it’s surely right that the UK government should be equally even-handed in assessing all human rights issues.”
Tom Porteous, a spokesman for Human Rights Watch, said the war was “one of the biggest human rights stories of the year”.
He added: “I think the omission is very serious and is going to undermine what is quite a strong report. I think the Foreign Office attempt to say it is because of a publication deadline is quite possibly true … [but] how did they include the stuff on Hizbullah and casualty figures in Israel? I am prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt that it could be a mistake but it will play very badly in the Muslim world.”
By contrast with the absence of Israel’s conduct in Lebanon, the report says: “We remain deeply concerned by Syria’s ongoing support for Hizbullah. Hizbullah’s role in the major outbreak of violence this year with Israel included abducting and detaining two Israeli soldiers and firing unguided rockets into Israeli towns and cities. In total, Hizbullah fired nearly 4,000 rockets into Israeli territory.”
It also noted that the rocket attacks had killed about 40 Israeli civilians.
At the press conference, Mrs Beckett delivered the clearest denunciation yet of Guantánamo Bay, describing detention without trial as “unacceptable in terms of human rights” and “ineffective in terms of counter-terrorism”.