Israel and Iran must de-escalate conflict to protect human rights, warn UN experts


Retaliatory military attacks between Israel and Iran violate the right to life and must cease immediately, UN experts said today.

Allegedly to counter foreign state support for “terrorism”, Israel attacked an Iranian consulate building in Syria on 1 April 2024, killing two Iranian generals, General Mohammad Reza Zahedi and General Mohammad Hadi Hajriahimi, five other Iranian military officers, alleged Hezbollah member Hussein Youssef, and two Syrians. Two Syrian police officers guarding the consulate were also injured. The residence of Iran’s Ambassador to Syria was located inside the building.

Iran responded by firing over 300 missiles and drones at Israel on 13 April, severely injuring a seven-year-old child and damaging a military facility.

“All countries are prohibited from arbitrarily depriving individuals of their right to life in military operations abroad, including when countering terrorism,” said the experts. “Killings in foreign territory are arbitrary when they are not authorised under international law,” they said.

The experts said Israel does not appear to have been exercising self-defence on 1 April because it presented no evidence that Iran was directly committing an “armed attack” on Israel or sending non-state armed groups to attack it. The experts noted that Israel has not provided any legal justification for the strike or reported it to the Security Council, as required by Article 51 of the United Nations Charter.

“Israel’s attack consequently violated the prohibition on the use of armed force against another state under Article 2(4) of the Charter,” the experts said. “Illegal force was used not only against Iran’s armed forces but also against Syrian territory. Israel’s attack was partly launched from the Golan Heights, which is illegally annexed Syrian territory,” they said.

The experts warned that Israeli military personnel and civilian officials responsible for the attack may also have committed crimes under an international counter-terrorism treaty of 1971, the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Crimes against Internationally Protected Persons. “It is an offence to violently attack the official premises or private accommodation of a diplomat where it is likely to endanger them. Iran, Israel and Syria are all parties to the treaty and all have criminal jurisdiction over such offences,” they recalled.

The experts said Iran’s response was also a prohibited use of force under international law. Israel’s strike on 1 April may have been serious enough to qualify as an “armed attack” on Iran, since it targeted senior military commanders and diplomatic premises. Yet Iran had no right of self-defence on 13 April because Israel’s attack concluded on 1 April. Self-defence is only lawful where is it necessary to stop a continuing armed attack. “Forcible retaliation, punishment or deterrence are illegal,” they warned.

For the same reason, Israel’s initial right of self-defence against the unlawful Iranian armed attack on 13 April no longer persists since the attack has been successfully repelled.

“These retaliatory strikes violate state sovereignty and represent a dangerous escalation of conflict in a region already on a knife-edge”, the experts warned. “Both strikes may also constitute the international crime of aggression by civilian and military leaders responsible,” they said.

The experts noted that Israel has previously attacked Iranian military and security personnel abroad apparently to counter alleged foreign state support for terrorism, without demonstrating that Iran sent those groups to attack Israel.

The experts equally emphasised that all countries have a duty to refrain from supporting violent terrorist acts against civilians, to prevent the use of their territories for these purposes, and to investigate and prosecute or extradite those who commit such acts.

The experts called on the Security Council to fulfil its responsibility to effectively respond to every state whose actions threaten international peace and security.

“This latest round of violence was predictably fuelled by decades of impunity for state violations of a most fundamental global rule: the prohibition on the use of force,” the experts said.

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