Friday, May 29, 2009

Pressure Upon Pressure

In New York City, students held a mass rally outside the offices of the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) urging them to step up their efforts to obtain access to Gilad Schalit, an Israeli soldier captured in Israel proper in a Hamas raid. Schalit has been held for over three years and nobody from the ICRC has been able to visit him. His state of health is unclear and it is uncertain that he remains alive.

The ICRC has made statements in the past that "The issue is continuously raised at high-level meetings with Hamas. We are pursuing dialogue with all those concerned...We have to talk to those who hold a person's fate in their hands in order to be able to help that person. We have also maintained regular contact with Gilad Shalit's family. We inform them, and the authorities concerned, about what we have done."

There is little debate over the illegality of Hamas holding Schalit as a hostage and denying humanitarian organizations the right to visit him enshrined in international law. The human rights organization B'Tselem rightly referred to the detention of Schalit in a virtual information blackout to be a war crime.

In a short interview between the ICRC and Schalit's parents, the captive soldier's father makes an interesting statement that at once proposes a way forward for the ICRC and recognizes its limitations. He says "After all, Hamas often relies on the ICRC for humanitarian matters so we were expecting that, similarly, the ICRC would succeed in getting what it needs and wants from Hamas. The problem is that consent and cooperation are essential for the ICRC and when both are lacking, there is not much it can do."

The ICRC needs to be a neutral organization to be effective. It needs to have the interests of people in mind when it does its work and ought not to play into politics. It should provide aid to those who need it, almost unconditionally. On the other hand, the ICRC and groups like it, including the various organs of the UN at work in Gaza, and Human Rights NGO "superpowers" like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have ongoing relationships with Hamas--which is not to say they are somehow related, or supporting one another, but rather that there is, at some level contact between these international organizations and NGOs on the one hand, and Hamas on the other. This communication is an important, direct channel that Israel and most democracies do not have, and, since these groups often provide needed assistance to the people of Gaza they are in a position where Gaza and Hamas needs them. Ergo, a position of influence.

However, a quick search for "Shalit" on the Amnesty International site reveals a few articles about the abducted soldier, but--with this one as an example--mostly in the context of Schalit being a prisoner of Hamas just as Israel has Palestinian prisoners. It is the case that there are Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, but that does nothing to diminish the truth that not even allowing ICRC members to inspect Schalit's condition is a violation of the Geneva conventions.

These groups need to elaborate and be pressured to elaborate a clear policy and steps forward which they, as champions of human rights, and states such as Israel, can take to ensure that Schalit's rights are respected. The ideal policy that these groups should elaborate on Schalit should focus firstly and ideally on how to bring him home, safely, healthy and alive. At least, however, it means that there should be unequivocal insistence that Hamas' denial of visits to Schalit are a flagrant flaunting of international law and are punishable and the ICRC or other, similar group, should be allowed to visit Schalit, bring him letters from his parents and allow him to write home, all in accordance with international law.

Anything less highlights and reinforces the perceived impotence of these organizations that can otherwise do good work.

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