‘An alarming pattern of disregard for civilian life’ in Yemen airstrikes

Abs hospital, in Hajjah governorate, northwestern Yemen, was hit by an airstrike, killing at least 11 people and injuring at least 19. (Credit: Doctors Without Borders)

In the span of just a few days, forces from the Saudi-led coalition destroyed a school and a hospital, killing dozens of civilians. The incidents were quickly deplored by human rights organizations, aid groups and the United Nations. Amnesty International went so far as to say that Monday’s bombing of a hospital supported by Doctors Without Borders is a war crime if it had been intentionally targeted.

“Deliberately targeting medical facilities is a serious violation of international humanitarian law which would amount to a war crime. The circumstances of this attack must be thoroughly and independently investigated,” said Magdalena Mughrabi, Amnesty International’s deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa program, in a statement. “Today’s airstrike appears to be the latest in a string of unlawful attacks targeting hospitals highlighting an alarming pattern of disregard for civilian life.”

At least 11 people are dead and more than a dozen injured after an airstrike hit a hospital in northwestern Yemen. Many of the people killed or injured were patients in the hospital, and at least one Doctors Without Borders staff member was killed. It is the fourth time that a medical facility supported by the aid group has come under attack.

“It’s imperative that we respect the basic rules of warfare,” Paul McPhun, executive director for Doctors Without Borders Australia, told ABC radio. “If you are going to wage war, you have to do it proportionally. You cannot simply wage war against civilian targets. You cannot blanket bomb areas, be it schools, or hospitals, or civilian infrastructure, and justify as somehow the cost of war. That constitutes a war crime. That is against the rules of war.”

Over the weekend, two schools in northern Yemen were hit by Saudi-led coalition strikes, killing at least 14 children. The coalition said that it did not target the schools, rather a militia training camp nearby. It said that the strike also killed a Houthi rebel leader and that the deaths of the children was due to the fact that Houthis are actively recruiting children to fight against government forces. Officials from aid groups working in the region rebutted the claims, saying the children, as young as six, were too young to be child soldiers.

These are just two incidents involving civilians killed by the Saudi-led coalition. The group, with the backing of the U.S. and other countries, has bombarded Yemen with aerial campaigns in order to defeat the Houthi rebels since early 2015. On numerous occasions hospitals and schools have been hit by strikes. According to the U.N., the coalition is responsible for the majority of child deaths and injuries in Yemen, and the total number of child deaths increased by six times in 2015 as compared to 2014.

Doctors Without Borders says it actively shares the coordinates of the hospitals it supported with the coalition to avoid attacks. The coalition knew the location of Abs Hospital in Hajja Province before it struck the facility on Monday. Such attacks have led aid groups to band together to condemn the actions. A joint release from Oxfam, Care, Handicap International, Mercy Corps, Intersos and Save the Children said that civilians are being put in the middle of the conflict.

“The Saudi Arabia-led Coalition claims to have taken measures to prevent and end grave violations against children but they are clearly not working if children continue to be killed and injured and schools and hospitals attacked,” said Edward Santiago, Save the Children’s Yemen country director, in the statement.

Even the U.S. State Department issued a statement condemning the attack on the hospital. The attacks have raised some concerns in the U.S. Congress. A proposal by the Obama administration to sell $1.15 billion in military equipment to Saudi Arabia, including tanks and machine guns, may be blocked by lawmakers. Saudi Arabia has purchased billions of dollars of military goods from the U.S. in the past without significant resistance. However, the attacks in Yemen and the killing of civilians have led to major concerns in Washington, D.C.

“Saudi Arabia’s dangerous and reckless use of cluster munitions and other weapons has already harmed and killed countless innocent civilians. The last thing the United States should do is sell them more than a billion dollars’ worth of additional arms and military equipment,” Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., told U.S. News and World Report last week. “As a world leader, America has a solemn responsibility to stand up for human rights and help protect the lives of innocent civilians.”

McGovern’s condemnation of the attacks on civilians are similar to those made by Doctors Without Borders yesterday.

“People in Yemen continue to be killed and injured while seeking medical care. The violence in Yemen is having a disproportionate burden on civilians. We want to express our outrage at having to send condolences once more to the families of our staff member and 10 patients, who should have been safe inside a hospital,” said Teresa Sancristóval, desk manager for the Emergency Unit in Yemen, 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.