Almost one year after their capture, the fate of three Israeli soldiers – two of them held by the Hezbollah, and one by Palestinian armed factions – still remains unknown, causing distress and anguish to their families. On this occasion, Dr. Jakob Kellenberger, President of the ICRC, talks about the challenge the ICRC is facing trying to get access to persons detained in relation to armed conflicts.

So far, the ICRC did not gain access to the three captured Israeli soldiers, nor was it able to provide a sign of life which would have reassured the families. What efforts is the ICRC deploying towards gaining access to them and ensuring that they are well treated ?

Uncertainty over the fate of a loved one causes immense suffering. Daily our staff around the world are in contact with anguished families who are waiting for news. Families have the right to know about the whereabouts of their relatives who went missing or are detained. Direct access to persons held in relation to armed conflict situations all over the world is a priority for the ICRC in order to independently assess their condition and the treatment they are receiving, and to try and ensure that basic principles of humanity are respected.

We spare no effort towards achieving this goal, including in the case of the three captured Israeli soldiers. Gilad Shalit was captured on 25 June by Palestinian armed factions and Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, on 12 July, by Hezbollah. We immediately informed all parties concerned of our will to visit the soldiers, to provide medical assistance if needed and to establish contacts between them and their family. In Lebanon and in Gaza, we have repeatedly called on those holding the soldiers to treat them humanely with full respect of international humanitarian law, and to allow them to contact their families. Fully aware of the immense despair of the families that have been without news from their sons for almost one year now, the priority for us today is to get at least a sign of life. Despite all ICRC efforts and to my own frustration this has not yet materialised.

Are non-State actors bound by international humanitarian law, and if so, how can the ICRC ensure that non-State actors comply with international humanitarian law?

Yes. There is an obligation for both State and non-State actors of conflicts to comply with the rules of international humanitarian law. One of these rules provides that all persons depr ived of their liberty must be allowed to correspond with their families.

One of the most important challenges the ICRC is facing in a changing conflict environment is to ensure access to persons affected by armed conflict and other situations of violence, including access to those held by non-State actors. It also poses the question of the relations we have with non-State actors and their acceptance of us and the rules of international humanitarian law. In this regard, developing and maintaining contacts with all sides involved in a conflict, and most importantly an independent, impartial and neutral approach of humanitarian action are crucial.

We remain focused on the humanitarian objectives of our work, work which we believe is best carried out discreetly with a range of parties who are involved directly and indirectly in such cases. Establishing and maintaining dialogue with those who determine the fate of the detainees is necessary in any of our efforts to assist detainees. Confidentiality in our dealings with all parties is for us the best path for future access.

What do you expect now from those holding the soldiers and what is the ICRC’s message to their families and more generally to the relatives of all those who went missing, are detained in undisclosed locations or held hostage in relation to conflicts around the world?

We expect, as a minimum humanitarian gesture, that any detained person be allowed to show their families that they are still alive. In the case of the three Israeli soldiers, we deeply deplore the fact that the Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Palestinian factions in Gaza have so far denied our delegates access, and that several attempts to transmit family news such as Red Cross messages or to obtain a sign of life were rejected.

We do not take ” no ” for an answer and will not give up . We will follow up on any leads that may present themselves, from the headquarters in Geneva and through our different delegations in the region and worldwide. It is also important to note that we maintain a regular contact with the families, as well as with the relevant authorities.

To the families of all those who remain unaccounted for, missing or detained in undisclosed locations, we would like to reaffirm our strong commitment to pursue our efforts to gain access to them and help them to contact their families. But the ICRC’s role cannot be a substitute for the responsibilities that lie with the parties to an armed conflict. Better implementation and enforcement of humanitarian law is primarily the responsibility of parties to armed conflicts, be they State or non-State actors.