U.S.-backed bombings force Doctors Without Borders to evacuate northern Yemen

Doctors Without Borders-supported Abs Hospital in Yemen’s Hajjah governorate, after it was bombed by the Saudi-led coalition forces. (Photo Credit: MSF)

Doctors Without Borders announced on Thursday that it was evacuating staff from six hospitals in northern Yemen. The medical aid group said that it is not confident its staff and facilities would be safe from future attacks after the bombing of a hospital it supports on Monday. The sudden pull out of medical professionals from the region is the direct result of aerial bombing campaigns by the U.S.-backed Saudi-led coalition.

“Given the intensity of the current offensive and [Doctors Without Borders]’s loss of confidence in the coalition’s ability to avoid such fatal attacks, [Doctors Without Borders] considers the hospitals in Saada and Hajjah governorates to be unsafe for both patients and staff,” said the group in a statement. “The decision to evacuate the staff, who include obstetricians, pediatricians, surgeons and emergency room specialists, was not taken lightly, but in the absence of credible assurances that parties to the conflict will respect the protected status of medical facilities, medical workers and patients, there may be no other option.”

Weapons used by the coalition in Yemen have come from the U.S. and U.K., among other arms sellers. The U.S. alone has sold more than $100 billion in arms to Saudi Arabia in the past five years. A deal pending right now would see another $1 billion in arms sold to the country. Further, officials from both the U.S. and U.K. are in the command and control center for the airstrikes in Yemen.

The exact coordinates of medical facilities supported by Doctors Without Borders are shared with the coalition in order to avoid being attacked. Despite that information, four hospitals supported by the group have been attacked in less than a year. And that is only a portion of the many hospitals and schools struck by coalition attacks, government forces and rebel groups.

More than 19 people died as the result of an airstrike that hit Abs Hospital in Yemen’s Hajjah governorate. It was the result of a resumption of attacks by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen after peace talks between the Yemeni government and rebel groups broke down less than two weeks ago. Activists say that attacks have been at times indiscriminate and resulted in the loss of civilian lives. The claim that the strike on Abs Hospital was a mistake does not sit well with Doctors Without Borders given that the coalition knew the exact location of the facility.

An investigation by the coalition is under way, but the results from prior inquiries have not been shared with Doctors Without Borders or the public. In addition to pulling out of parts of Yemen, the aid group is calling for an independent investigation in order to hold individuals or groups accountable if any wrongdoing is determined. They are also urging the countries backing the coalition to stop.

“This latest incident shows that the current rules of engagement, military protocols and procedures are inadequate in avoiding attacks on hospitals and need revision and changes,” said Joan Tubau, Doctors Without Borders general director, in a statement. “MSF asks the Saudi-led coalition and the governments supporting the coalition, particularly the U.S., U.K. and France, to ensure an immediate application of measures to substantially increase the protection of civilians.”

The coalition has repeatedly said that it is upholding international humanitarian law, which includes not deliberately targeting civilians and ensuring that the damage caused by attacks are proportionate. The suggestion that such incidents are war crimes has been raised. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon weighed in Wednesday regarding the hospital attack. His spokesperson reaffirmed the need to protect civilians and to respect international humanitarian law.

“Civilians, including children, are paying the heaviest price in the ongoing conflict, as civilian infrastructure, such as schools and hospitals, continue to be hit,” said the spokesperson, to the media. “In this connection, the secretary-general condemns the reported attack from the direction of Yemen that hit a workshop, killing at least seven civilians in Najran, Saudi Arabia, yesterday, as well as the reported airstrike that hit a home in Nehm, east of Sana’a, in Yemen, which killed at least nine civilians.”

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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.