Noam Greenberger

Could the Red Cross do more for the hostages?

Sukhumi, Abkhazia, Georgia - 11 April, 2023: Car of the international committee of the red cross parked on city street. (iStock)
Sukhumi, Abkhazia, Georgia - 11 April, 2023: Car of the international committee of the red cross parked on city street. (iStock)

Following the Hamas invasion and kidnapping of roughly 240 hostages on October 7, the role of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has come under scrutiny. Much criticism has been levelled at its failure to provide humanitarian assistance to the hostages — or even obtain proof of life. There have been numerous demonstrations around the world (including in Melbourne) outside Red Cross offices.

Israelis have become increasingly frustrated with what they perceive to be the ICRC’s ineptitude. After more than 70 days in captivity, the roughly 140 remaining hostages have never been visited by the ICRC. Added to this are the testimonies of those who have been released from Hamas captivity as to sexual assaults, beatings, being kept in cages, denial of medicine and medical treatment, meagre food and water rations, parents being separated from children and children being forced to watch videos of the October 7 massacre.

According to the hostages’ families the ICRC has provided no support to them, instead urging them to consider the plight of Gazans. It has also avoided publicizing the treatment faced by hostages under Hamas’ control. This would bring international attention to their dire predicament. It would also show the hostage survivors that their suffering matters.

The ICRC has demanded access to and the immediate release of all hostages. However, it is not possible to know whether it has exhausted all diplomatic options behind the scenes.

At the same time, the ICRC has provided medical supplies, household supplies, water and fuel to Gazans. It has also called for a de-escalation of hostilities (which would enable Hamas to live to fight another day).

Could the ICRC be doing more to help the hostages?

The ICRC regularly operates in conflict zones to offer humanitarian aid and promote adherence to international humanitarian law (IHL) principles. Historically, it is known for its assistance to Prisoners of War. (It is also known for its failure to speak up against the Holocaust.) Parties to the Geneva Conventions involved in international armed conflict have an obligation to allow the ICRC to visit detainees (but not necessarily to allow the delivery of humanitarian services to them).

Non-state actors like Hamas are not parties to the Geneva Conventions. In any event, the ICRC lacks the ability to enforce IHL – nor would it ever want that responsibility due to its neutrality. Its most powerful weapons are those of public censure or alerting the world to breaches of international law.

The charge that non-state actors (including Hamas) are not complying with international law shocks no-one. The ICRC is in a weak position where it cannot depend on a basic commitment to humanitarian law and must attempt to influence Hamas while relying on it for the safety of its staff and for permission to operate in Gaza – a fragile starting point.

Contrary to popular belief, the ICRC does not engage in hostage negotiations. Were it to do so, it would inevitably have to compromise on its commitment to the IHL principles it is tasked with promoting and applying. After all, hostage-taking is prohibited under the Geneva Conventions.

Instead, the ICRC sees to it that hostages taken in international or internal conflicts are treated humanely. In practice, this involves pushing for access to them and arranging for adequate food, medicine and other basic conditions. When a hostage release is agreed, it can facilitate it. The ICRC does all of this irrespective of any overarching territorial disputes where hostages are being held and without expressing a view on the conflict or cause giving rise to the hostage situation.

It is also involved in the provision of humanitarian services (such as field hospitals) in conflict zones. It fiercely protects its autonomy to allocate resources where it perceives it can best achieve its aims. This leaves it open to criticism on the basis that its decisions involve value judgments and are not transparent. It is voluntarily funded by countries party to the Geneva Conventions, but remains a private Swiss organization headed by Swiss nationals.

The ICRC’s commitment to neutrality and discretion puts it in an ambiguous moral position. It is regularly forced to decide whether to stay quiet on gross violations of international law in the expectation (or hope) of maintaining relations with an offending party. Alternatively, it may use quiet diplomacy to work with that party’s allies and sway its decision-making. It is not bound to apply the same solutions to each matter and there is no court to hear an appeal against its decisions.

Hamas portrays itself as a benevolent captor. It does so by releasing video footage of hostages receiving medical treatment, by freeing some family members but not others (which prevents those freed from speaking out publicly) and by ensuring that hostages hold hands with and wave to armed Hamas men while on their way to being freed by the ICRC. By failing to denounce Hamas’ treatment of the hostages, the ICRC has allowed itself to be used as part of Hamas’ propaganda machine.

Were the ICRC to contradict Hamas’ narrative, it may find its staff in Gaza endangered or expelled. This would thwart its humanitarian activities in support of Gazans. It could also lead to the organization being permanently denied access to the remaining hostages (or from facilitating their eventual release). This would harm the ICRC’s image and reputation. It would also be contrary to the hostages’ interests.

A better strategy

For all of these reasons, Israel, its supporters and the ICRC ought to consider directing more of their hostage-release efforts towards Qatar. Qatar was reportedly “outraged by Hamas’s hostage-taking and thought they should all be freed unconditionally”. According to the Israeli PM’s office, the original hostage release deal made in November included a term that the ICRC be given access to all remaining hostages, and supply them with medication. This condition remains unfulfilled, despite Egypt and Qatar guaranteeing that Hamas would comply with the deal.

Qatar’s part in this war is dependent on its ability to influence Hamas. Failure to do so will put the focus back on its financial contribution to the development of Hamas’ terrorist infrastructure and its role as a safe-haven for Hamas leaders. This harms its relations with the West. Hamas cannot afford to ignore a demand made by the Qataris, including for ICRC access to the hostages.

We will likely never know the reasons behind the ICRC’s decision-making in this war, nor whether it is doing all it can for the hostages. What we do know is, while parties to the Geneva Conventions (such as Israel) are required to cooperate with it, terrorist organizations will continue to selectively exploit the ICRC for their own ends. Public hostage-release campaigns have understandably focused on pressuring the ICRC to act. It has an obligation to advocate for the hostages, including by bringing attention to their grave situation. Hamas’ dependence on Qatar and Qatar’s concern with its global reputation should make it a focus of the campaign to save the lives of all remaining hostages.

First published in Plus61J Media.

About the Author
Noam Greenberger is a lawyer and freelance journalist.
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