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ICRC concerned about health of Palestinian hunger strikers

10-05-2012 Interview

A group of Palestinians held in Israeli places of detention who went on hunger strike in March and early April are in imminent danger of dying. Juan-Pedro Schäerer, head of the ICRC delegation in Tel Aviv, shares his views.

What is the current situation of the detainees on hunger strike?

The situation is desperate for six Palestinians held in administrative detention who have been refusing food for seven weeks or more. As we speak, they are still detained in the medical facility of Marash Prison. Their condition is critical. We are extremely concerned, as some of them are in imminent danger of dying. All six should be transferred without delay to a suitable hospital so that their condition can be continuously monitored and they can receive specialized medical and nursing care.

The detainees on hunger strike are protesting, among other things, against being detained without charge or trial. Administrative detention, while not prohibited under international humanitarian law, is an exceptional measure that may only be taken when necessary for imperative reasons of security. According to international humanitarian law, the authorities must respect the detainees' right to information about the reasons for their detention, their right to challenge its lawfulness, and their right to legal assistance.

What is the situation in other places where detainees have gone on hunger strike?

More than 1,600 detainees have been on hunger strike since 17 April. Their main demands are for family visits from Gaza to resume and for solitary confinement to end.

The ICRC has assigned extra staff to monitor the situation of the many detainees on hunger strike. Our aim is to ensure that detainees have access to medical care and that standards of medical ethics are adhered to. In particular, patients must be given the opportunity to freely give or withhold their consent to any proposed treatment. The role of ICRC doctors is not to influence any detainee's decision to carry on with or give up the hunger strike. However, our medical personnel systematically inform the detainees about the possible health implications of a prolonged hunger strike.

What is your position on hunger strikes? Do the Israeli authorities have the right to forcibly feed detainees?

Hunger strikes have already been used several times in the Israeli-Palestinian context. The ICRC, as a neutral humanitarian organization, has never taken a position on the legitimacy of hunger strikes. Nevertheless, we are very concerned about what happens inside places of detention. Our delegates try to make sure that the detainees receive proper treatment and appropriate medical care, and that the choice they make based on their own free will – be it to continue or to abandon the hunger strike – is respected. The delegates share their observations confidentially with the Israeli authorities.

We are of course in favour of any medical treatment that could benefit the detainees. However, it is important to point out that, under guidelines adopted by the World Medical Association in the Declaration of Tokyo in 1975 and the Malta Declaration as revised in 2006, the detainees are entitled to freely choose whether to consent to be fed or to receive medical treatment. The ICRC is opposed to any kind of forced feeding or forced treatment; it is essential that the detainees' choices be respected and their human dignity preserved.

What has the ICRC done to facilitate contacts between detainees and their families?

Ever since the Israeli authorities suspended family visits to detainees on hunger strike, the ICRC has repeatedly requested that those visits, in particular to detainees on long-term hunger strike, be allowed to resume. Under international humanitarian law, Israel has an obligation to ensure family visits for Palestinian detainees, subject to reasonable security restrictions. In extreme circumstances such as these, allowing contact with family members is a necessary act of humanity. In the absence of family visits and to try to fill the gap, we share oral messages with detainees’ families after our visits.

Why doesn't the ICRC request the release of the detainees whose health is rapidly deteriorating and who may die?

The ICRC does not have a mandate to seek the release of detainees. Its task as a neutral and impartial humanitarian organization is to do what it can to ensure that the treatment detainees receive and the conditions in which they are held are humane and in accordance with all the safeguards and protections provided for under international humanitarian law. What we can also do, as I've already mentioned, is to provide certain services, such as conveying messages between detainees and their families.