We protect basic rights

Sir, – Erik Schechter criticizes Human Rights Watch and other human rights organizations for failing to apply the laws on belligerent occupation as they were interpreted 100 years ago, before the 1949 Geneva Conventions and modern human rights law ("Prisoners of Gaza," January 22).

The 1907 Hague Regulations might have required there to be "boots on the ground" for occupation law to apply, but such a formalistic approach has long been discarded. Human Rights Watch applies the law on occupation to the situation in Gaza – the recent Israeli Supreme Court decision notwithstanding – because despite withdrawing its troops and settlers, Israel maintains "effective control" over critical aspects of Gazan life, including the basic movement of people, commodities and energy supplies, and, as Schechter notes, authority over taxes, customs and ID cards. Plus, Israeli security forces can enter Gaza at will.

Other bodies of international law are also applicable in Gaza. Human Rights Watch has applied the laws of armed conflict, such as the prohibition on indiscriminate attacks, to Palestinian armed groups. International human rights law is relevant in Gaza with respect to fundamental freedoms and other issues, such as Hamas’s mistreatment of persons in custody.

One can debate whether the international community erred in not labeling Western Sahara an occupation, but our concern is how we can best protect the population with respect to the issues that fall within our mandate. For the Western Sahara, our main concern has been Morocco’s severe repression of peaceful expression, a human rights law violation, not a matter of occupation law.

Various legal regimes may apply to a particular situation, and the ones highlighted by human rights groups reflect a selection of the most relevant law to protect basic rights, rather than the selectivity or double standard that Schechter suggests.

Legal and Policy Director
Human Rights Watch
New York

Erik Schechter responds:

Mr. Ross suggests that a territory may be considered occupied even if free of foreign forces. Unfortunately, he provides not a shred of evidence to support this claim. Next, he argues that Israel still maintains "effective control" of the Gaza Strip. However, he fails to define this term in way that is neither ambiguous nor tautological. Neither does he address the events of January 23, which – one would think – put to rest any quirky notion that Israel still controls the Gaza-Egypt border.

Finally, contrary to what Ross claims, the international community did declare Western Sahara occupied – twice. Human Rights Watch simply chooses to ignore UN General Assembly Resolutions 34/37 and 35/19.