The Hamas horrors of October 7th are too terrible to be believed, but not too terrible to have happened. The brutal murder and maiming of Israelis – 1200 innocents, including infants and the infirm – shocks the conscience and shakes the soul.
238 hostages were brutally taken into Gaza, and far too many continue to be held illegally. With every hostage release comes the cruel taunting and psychological torment of Hamas propaganda videos, and the knowledge that others are still captive and subject to unspeakable torture and ill-treatment.
These hostages represent over 25 different nationalities, many different ethnicities, and a range of religions and beliefs. They span all ages and vulnerabilities, including a baby, a cancer patient, and a wheelchair-bound Holocaust survivor. While Hamas was motivated by the genocidal antisemitism expressed in its charter, its actions engage all of humanity.
Hamas’s continued holding of hostages, withholding of information on their identity and situation, and their inhumane and degrading treatment is a crime against humanity and standing violation of international law.
Freeing the hostages is a moral imperative, a humanitarian obligation, and a legal duty. As the guarantors of international law, peace and security, the international community should be compelled to address – and redress – this standing human rights violation and standalone humanitarian crisis.
Further, Hamas commits the double war crime of targeting Israeli civilians, while using Palestinian civilians as human shields.
Our Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights has been working on behalf of the hostages, immediately mobilizing on October 7th in pursuing a multi-faceted advocacy initiative including diplomatic, juridical, and legislative strategies on an international level. Our Centre is working directly with the families and their representative Forum of Families – alongside grassroots civil society partners around the world – to support the release of all the hostages and reuniting them with their suffering families.
We outlined several key steps Canada can take to advance justice and support the hostages in the Globe and Mail on October 10, and have since undertaken the following global initiatives:
Working with partners around the world, we secured statements condemning Hamas and calling for the release of hostages. Whether from parliaments, governments, international organizations, civil society groups or public figures, these efforts spanned the globe and had wide reach and resonance.
In October we disseminated a petition from former judges calling for prompt legal action for the release of the hostages. Its signatories include the former Chief Justice of Canada Rt. Hon Beverley McLachlin, and justices Rosalie Abella, Michel Bastarache, Morris Fish, Michael Moldaver, Marshall Rothstein, former Master of the Rolls of the UK Rt. Hon John Dyson and Supreme Court justice Rt. Hon Lawrence Collins, Former President of the Colombian Constitutional Court Manuel José Cepeda Espinosa, former South African Constitutional Court Judge Richard Goldstone, former Advocate-General of the European Court of Justice Miguel Poiares Maduro, former Presidents of the Supreme Court of Israel Aharon Barak and Dorit Beinisch, Australian High Court judge Susan Crennan. Following the initiation of this petition, many other legal letters in Canada and internationally followed.
As well, we partnered with the National Council of Jewish Women on their Voices for Hostages Campaign, securing support from some of the world’s leading women.
The RWCHR has also led international advocacy delegations with the families of hostages in various world capitals, including a high-level visit to Washington, D.C. and Ottawa, Canada.
In D.C., we organized a hearing of the U.S. Helsinki Commission on “Hamas Hostages, Putin’s Prisoners, and International Captives”; arranged for testimony before the Congressional Task Force on Antisemitism and the Hellenic Israel Alliance; met with the Chairs and Ranking Members of the House and Senate Foreign Affairs Committees; the co-chair of the Lantos Human Rights Commission; the Commissioners and Executives of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom; leading U.S. Government officials such as the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs and Ambassador for International Criminal Justice; and top bipartisan Congressional leaders. These meetings supported the adoption of motions in the House and Senate condemning Hamas and calling for the immediate and unconditional release of hostages; implementation of further sanctions; congressional representations to the ICRC on behalf of the hostages; and intensified private diplomatic initiatives focusing on states with leverage over Hamas.
The RWCHR then proceeded to Ottawa with the families of hostages, where we met with the Prime Minister and the leaders of the major political parties, and called on Canada to exercise global leadership on behalf of all hostages. The delegation also visited Toronto, and met with the Premier and cabinet of Ontario, and with Ambassador to the UN Bob Rae. All levels of government and all political parties committed to intensify public calls and private diplomatic representations for the release of the hostages. In that regard, Canada’s House of Commons became the first legislature to adopt a unanimous motion calling for the immediate and unconditional release of all hostages. Following RWCHR interventions, Canada established an international diplomatic coordination group on behalf of the hostages and appointed a senior official for hostage affairs.
The RWCHR further engaged with UN officials to demand that they fulfill their mandate to seek the release of the hostages, and which resulted in a number of interventions from UN Independent Experts condemning Hamas and calling for the release of the hostages. Following intensive RWCHR advocacy, the UN Security Council issued a call for the immediate and unconditional release of the hostages.
In a celebration of our common humanity and a collective call for justice, diverse communities across Canada came together to call for the release of the hostages. Our Centre contributed to these gatherings, serving as a main organizer of the major Toronto rally for human rights and justice, bringing together Iranian, Ukrainian, and other diasporas committed to the shared struggle against evil. The RWCHR is now spearheading a Canadian civil society coalition featuring Canada’s major human rights groups and diverse cultural communities in advocating for the release of the hostages.
As the next stage of advocacy, the Centre is continuing its support of national investigations towards asset forfeitures and criminal prosecutions, initiating international legal interventions, spearheading targeted economic sanctions, and other measures of justice and accountability.
These mechanisms are intended to increase pressure on Hamas and its leaders – many of whom live in luxury abroad as they cause immense suffering to Palestinians and Israelis – while also targeting their state sponsors. Those who fund, train, arm, and direct Hamas – particularly those in Iran – need to be subject to maximum international pressure. In a word, the RWCHR is leaving no stone unturned in the effort to secure justice, exert pressure, and contribute to the release of the hostages and their reunification with loved ones.