Attacks on health workers go unpunished in at least 23 countries

(MSF)

Health workers and facilities were under attack in conflicts in at least 23 countries in 2016, and the perpetrators are getting away with it, according to a new report from the Safeguarding Health in Conflict Coalition.

“Without accountability, these attacks won’t stop, and efforts to investigate these kinds of incidents – and pursue justice where relevant – have been halfhearted or worse,” Diederik Lohman, director of health and human rights at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.

Incidents include bombs dropped on hospitals, health worker arrests and blockades that stop the transport of medical supplies. The level of violence is “remarkably high” in Afghanistan, Iraq, South Sudan, Yemen and Syria, according to the report. Attacks in Afghanistan nearly doubled from 2015 to 2016. More than half of all health facilities in Yemen and South Sudan have closed amid the civil wars in those countries.

The violence persists despite a U.N. Security Council resolution adopted a year ago that sought to protect health in conflict. The Safeguarding Health in Conflict Coalition officials said that the Security Council needs to go further to investigate the attacks to hold those behind them accountable, and to prevent future attacks.

The situation is destabilizing health systems in the 23 countries cited in the report. Skilled health workers reportedly fled from Libya, Ukraine and Syria over personal security concerns. In Yemen, an attack on a health facility led Doctors Without Borders to suspend support for six facilities. Dozens of patients there were left waiting for surgeries that wouldn’t happen.

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“We know that in places like South Sudan and Iraq, many vicious attacks on health care have been inflicted by parties to the conflicts,” Laura Hoemeke, director of communications and advocacy at IntraHealth International, said in a statement. “These attacks cascade into lack of access to health care for suffering populations, but no one is collecting the number of attacks.“

The report attempts to do just that, but is unable to quantify the number of attacks in all parts of the world. Roughly three dozen humanitarian groups make up the coalition with the goal of pressuring international bodies and governments to stop health care attacks. They succeeded in getting the U.N. Security Council to adopt a resolution condemning attacks on medical personnel in conflict situations.

The leaders of the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders pressed on the Security Council and then-Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to ensure the safety of health care in conflict zones. Aside from strong words and a call for parties to conflict to follow international laws, the resolution had no direct actions to deal with the problem.

“Humanity in war is what we demand,” International Committee of the Red Cross President Peter Maurer said after the resolution was adopted. “With this resolution, you reaffirmed the relevance of the laws of war, the basic humanitarian consensus enshrined in the Geneva Conventions. To demand they are respected through practical measures is the most decisive next step this Council can take to ensure humanity in war is a reality and not just an ideal.”

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The most tangible outcome was that the U.N. would start tracking incidents and produce a yearly progress report. A report in the middle of 2016 by the World Health Organization was the first attempt by the U.N. to account for all attacks on health care. It continues to serve as the monitoring body for the attacks, recording nearly 200 attacks in the first three-quarters of 2016.

The coalition report today asks the U.N. and member states to recommit to the promises made in the resolution last year. Tracking incidents and providing regular briefings are a good first step toward accountability, the report stated.

“Our findings cry out for a level of commitment and follow-through by the international community and individual governments that has been absent since the passage of Security Council Resolution 2286 a year ago,” Leonard S. Rubenstein, director of the program on human rights, health and conflict at the Johns Hopkins University and chairman of the coalition, said in a statement.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.