Béatrice Mégevand-Roggo, the ICRC’s head of operations for the Middle East and North Africa, talks about the organization’s efforts to gain access to the three Israeli soldiers captured in June and July 2006 by Palestinian factions and Hezbollah respectively. She uses this example to describe the challenge the ICRC faces in its efforts to ascertain the fate of detainees held in connection with armed conflicts.

Almost two years after their capture, it’s still not known what happened to the three soldiers. What has the ICRC done so far to find out?

We deeply deplore that in the case of the three Israeli soldiers, Gilad Shalit, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, purely political considerations have outweighed humanitarian concerns and respect for basic humanitarian principles.

Since the three soldiers were captured in 2006, we have repeatedly called on those holding them to treat them humanely. Time and again we have demanded to be able to visit them, or at least to obtain a sign that they are alive, and have reminded their captors of their moral and legal obligations. Even our attempts to transmit family news such as a simple Red Cross Message have been categorically rejected.

We have maintained regular contact with the soldiers’families and regularly inform the relevant authorities about our actions.

What else can the ICRC do now?

Unfortunately we have no other means of putting pressure on those who control this situation to comply with humanitarian rules and principles. Despite this, we strongly believe that developing and maintaining contact with Hezbollah and Hamas is essential to making progress on this issue.

Obtaining access to persons detained in connection with armed conflicts remains a huge challenge for the ICRC worldwide. We are acutely aware of the distress and anger of countless families who do not know what has happened to relatives who have been detained, are being held hostage or are missing as a result of an armed conflict.

What do you expect from those holding the soldiers and what is your message to the families?

Time and again we have promised the families of Gilad Shalit, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, and indeed all the other families of those who have been detained or are unaccounted for, that we will do all in our power to gain access to their loved ones or to at least obtain a sign that they are alive. These are not empty words, we really mean them.

Families have the right to know the fate of relatives who are missing or detained. As the ICRC president, Jakob Kellenberger, has repeatedly said, all detainees should at least be allowed to let their families know that they are still alive.

We urge those holding the three soldiers to comply with the rules of international humanitarian law, in particular to allow them to correspond with their families.

Both States and armed groups are bound by these essential rules.

But this is where the ICRC’s action reaches its limits: we cannot shoulder responsibilities that lie primarily with the parties involved in an armed conflict. Nevertheless, we shall continue to remind those holding the soldiers of their responsibilities under international humanitarian law – to treat them humanely and to allow them to contact their families.