Member countries of the U.N. Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution that affirms the imperative to protect medical facilities and health workers in conflict areas. It is a direct response to recent attacks on health centers in Syria, Yemen and Sudan. It reaffirms the long-held conviction that attacks on neutral health workers are war crimes, and it is a victory for medical relief group Doctors Without Borders, which campaigned for the resolution’s passage following attacks on facilities it supports.
“Broad attacks on communities and precise attacks on health facilities are described as mistakes, are denied outright, or are simply met with silence,” said Doctors Without Borders head Joanne Liu to the Security Council on Tuesday. “In reality, they amount to massive, indiscriminate and disproportionate civilian targeting in urban settings, and, in the worst cases, they are acts of terror. The effects of the attacks against health facilities emanate far beyond those immediately killed and injured.”
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon supported the resolution and echoed the sentiments that attacks that prevent people from getting health care is a violation of international humanitarian law. He described such attacks as “shameful and inexcusable.” It is particularly concerning in places like South Sudan and Iraq where existing health systems are weak. Cutting off access entirely or making it dangerous to receive care affects civilians the hardest.
The resolution comes in the wake of an attack on a hospital in Aleppo, Syria. The Doctors Without Borders-supported facility was reduced to rubble in late April when airstrikes hit the hospital and neighboring buildings. At least 55 people were killed in the attack on Al Quds hospital, the main pediatric referral hospital in Aleppo. One of the last pediatricians in the embattled city died, as well as six hospital staffers, two nurses, a guard and a dentist.
Airstrikes also hit facilities holding medical supplies. It is common practice for both sides in a conflict to know the exact location of medical facilities and storage areas to prevent these kinds of attacks. Doctors Without Borders and others say that the attacks show that there is a deliberate disregard for the rules of war. Ban pointed out that this attack is just one example out of many in Syria.
“Yet this appalling act was only the latest wartime assault on health care in Syria,” he told the Security Council. “Since the beginning of the conflict, Physicians for Human Rights has documented more than 360 attacks on some 250 medical facilities. More than 730 medical personnel have been killed.”
Doctors Without Borders launched a campaign recently called #NotATarget. It was designed to support the resolution, stop attacks and hold perpetrators accountable. Despite the U.S. admitting its complicity in airstrikes on a hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, that killed 42 people, there has been no sort of reprimand. Doctors Without Borders pushed for an international investigation but failed. A U.S.-led investigation recently released a report that admitted mistakes were made. But victims of the attacks have no way to pursue legal action against the U.S. military.
In the end, it amounts to the same result as the contested playoff Game 2 between the Thunder and the Spurs. The referees admit they were wrong, apologize and the outcome stays the same. Unless something changes, the U.S. will not suffer any consequences for the airstrikes. That is why groups like Doctors Without Borders and the Red Cross rallied to support the resolution.
“Attacking a hospital, threatening a doctor, coercing a nurse to give preferential treatment to armed fighters, hijacking ambulances, using patients as human shields – these are not collateral damage. These are not sad realities we have to get used to. They are abominations to fight and trends to roll back,” Peter Maurer, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross, told the Security Council.