UN Security Council Reminds the World: Don't Bomb Hospitals or Kill Doctors

As medical centers in conflict areas continue to be assaulted, the UN adopted a resolution demanding that countries comply with their obligations under international law to protect healthcare personnel and facilities.
May 3, 2016, 8:50pm
Syrians look at a destroyed field hospital in the rebel-held area of Douma. (Photo by Mohammed Badra)

The United Nations Security Council voted unanimously on Tuesday to reaffirm to itself and the rest of the UN's member states that they shouldn't bomb medical facilities or kill doctors.

Drafted by New Zealand, Spain, Uruguay, Egypt, and Japan, the resolution demands that countries comply with their existing obligations under international law and ensure the protection of medical and humanitarian personnel, as well as the hospitals and facilities where they work. It "strongly urges" countries to conduct independent investigations in the event that facilities are struck or workers are injured or killed during conflicts.

The council met less than a week after a Doctors Without Borders (MSF) assisted hospital in the Syrian city of Aleppo was leveled by a suspected regime strike, killing at least 55, including one of the city's few pediatricians. Last Friday, the Pentagon announced that 16 US personnel had been disciplined for mistaking another of the medical charity's facilities for a military target in Kunduz, Afghanistan, subjecting the hospital to a half-hour aerial attack that left 42 dead last October.

Just hours before the Security Council's vote, reports indicated that several people had been killed and at least 17 wounded "in a rebel attack on a hospital in a government-controlled part of Aleppo.

Related: Another Aleppo Hospital Attacked as Rebels Launch New Offensive

Joanne Liu, president of MSF, noted in an address to the Security Council that four of its five permanent members— the US, Russia, the UK, and France — have "to varying degrees been associated with coalitions responsible for attacks on health structures over the past year." The associations include Moscow's intervention in Syria, NATO's intervention in Afghanistan, and the US- and UK-supported Saudi intervention in Yemen, where coalition jets have repeatedly hit health facilities.

"We are facing an epidemic of attacks on health facilities, impeding our ability to do our core work," said Liu. "To date, our calls for independent investigations have gone unheeded."

During the council's session, US Deputy Permanent Representative Michele Sison offered "profound condolences" for the Kunduz assault. Afterward, Liu was asked about the US military's Kunduz investigation, which led to no criminal charges or court martials, and which declared that the US had not committed a war crime because its forces had not intended to kill patients and MSF staff. Though purposeful attacks on health facilities and medical workers are clear war crimes under international law, proving such intent is difficult.

"We find it very difficult that someone would be perpetrator, the judge, the investigator, and the jury," Liu told reporters.

In Yemen, where more than 3,000 civilians have died since the start of Saudi Arabia's intervention last March, both the Yemeni government and its backers in Riyadh have ostensibly established investigative mechanisms — neither of which is considered viable or unbiased. Like the Saudi coalition in Yemen, Russia routinely denies responsibility for attacks in Syria, including on hospitals. At Tuesday's session, Russia complained about "unreliable sources" that implicate its forces in attacks on medical facilities in Syria. Deputy Permanent Representative Evgeniy Zagaynov warned that medical workers "must respect the laws and customs of the host countries."

Related: US Claims Assault on MSF Afghan Hospital Isn't a War Crime Because It Was an Accident

According to Physicians for Human Rights, more than 730 medical personnel have been killed in more than 360 attacks since the start of Syria's civil war in 2011. Medical supplies, along with other humanitarian goods, are routinely blocked from delivery in hard to reach and besieged areas. According to the UN's humanitarian chief Stephen O'Brien, the Syrian regime has systematically removed medical supplies, including surgical equipment from humanitarian convoys, even after a February ceasefire took effect. Tuesday's resolution includes specific demands that all countries cease such obstruction.

In Yemen, in just over a year, more than 600 medical facilities have closed due to damage and supply shortages. Addressing the council, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that the UN had verified 59 attacks involving 34 different hospitals in the country.

"All too often, attacks on health facilities and medical workers are not just isolated or incidental battlefield fallout, but rather the intended objective of combatants," said Ban. "This is shameful and inexcusable."

He noted an attack carried out by the Saudi-led coalition this January on a hospital in the northern Saada governorate that forced pregnant women "to give birth in caves rather than risk travelling to the facility."

Saudi Arabia was one of the co-sponsors of the resolution passed Tuesday, as it's mission to the UN proudly noted in a tweet.

Saudi Arabia is proud to have co-sponsored the — KSA Mission UN (@ksamissionun)May 3, 2016

Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, cautiously hailed the resolution, which asks that Ban recommend measures to prevent such incidents, and that he and future secretary-generals include protection of medical workers, patients, and health facilities in country-specific reports and other evaluations published by their office.

"Humanity in war is what we demand," said Maurer. "Even wars have limits, because wars without limits are wars without ends. Healthcare personnel and facilities are the outer frontier of these limits."

Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford