Attacks on health facilities in war zones must cease - Independent investigation of all attacks is essential.

Attacks on health facilities in war zones must cease.

Independent investigation of all attacks is essential.

May 9th 2016

MAPW welcomes the United Nations Security Council resolution 2286 regarding attacks on health workers in conflict zones, which was unanimously adopted on May 3rd. This will strengthen protection in war zones for health care workers, the sick and wounded, hospitals and clinics.

Attacks on health facilities are totally unacceptable. Since the beginning of the conflict in Syria, Physicians for Human Rights have documented more than 360 attacks on some 250 medical facilities. More than 730 medical personnel have been killed. A similar pattern of systematic destruction of health facilities is evident in Yemen, with more than 600 medical facilities having closed because of damage sustained in the conflict and shortages of supplies and medical workers.

These attacks are coming from all sides. In January this year, Coalition air strikes hit the Shiara Hospital, which serves around 120,000 people in Sa’ada Governorate. Last October in Kunduz, Afghanistan, bombing by United States military destroyed another MSF hospital and killed dozens, as patients were burned alive in their beds. Aleppo was recently hit by an air strike, by all accounts by the Government of Syria. It destroyed a hospital and killed at least 20 people, including three children and the area’s one and only paediatrician, Dr. Mohammad Wassim Maaz.

This pattern of attacking health facilities is also seen in other conflicts such as Iraq and South Sudan, where violence destroying places of care is massively worsening the problems of health systems that are already struggling.

This UN resolution will only be of value if governments take measures to prevent future attacks, and accept the need for independent investigation. It is critical that armed forces are held to account and there is universal acknowledgement that attacking health facilities is totally unacceptable.

The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged all Member States, parties to conflict and other relevant actors to heed the Council’s demands by:

Facilitating humanitarian access

Developing domestic legal frameworks that protect health facilities and medical workers  

Training armed forces so they understand their obligations

Prosecuting those responsible for such attacks and other violations

Investigation of these events needs to be by an independent tribunal under the Geneva Conventions. As an illustration of why this is essential, one only needs to examine the US response to the bombings in Kunduz.  The United States military recently released a report regarding these attacks. This predictably exonerates itself from all guilt saying it was a terribly tragic mistake.

This finding lacks credibility. A report in the Intercept noted the following:  (1) MSF repeatedly told the U.S. military about the precise coordinates of its hospital, which had been operating for years; (2) the Pentagon’s story about what happened kept changing, radically, literally on a daily basis; (3) the exact same MSF hospital had been invaded by Afghan security forces three months earlier, demonstrating hostility toward the facility;  (4) the attack lasted more than 30 minutes and involved multiple AC-130 gunship flyovers, even as MSF officials frantically pleaded with the U.S. military to stop; and, most compellingly of all, (5) Afghan officials from the start said explicitly that the hospital was a valid and intended target due to the presence of Taliban fighters as patients.

MAPW condemns all attacks on health care workers. In October last year MAPW wrote to Foreign Minister Julie Bishop urging her to support an independent inquiry into the Kunduz attacks. Given the highly doubtful findings of the US investigation, the need for unbiased investigations is all the more critical. Attacks on civilian infrastructure, including health care facilities, are one of the many consequences for innocent people of modern wars. They strengthen the imperative to prevent warfare and to greatly augment diplomatic and other tools with which conflicts can be addressed.

MAPW has written today Foreign Minister Julie Bishop to urge the Australian government to strongly support this UN resolution and work to ensure all Australia’s allies also commit to acting on this critical issue.