UN Votes: Don't Bomb Hospitals

 In Afghanistan, air strikes, Syria

As if anyone should have needed this reminder ….

Today, the United Nations Security Council voted to remind UN member states that medical facilities and personnel should never be targets of war.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon addressed the Council pointedly reminded them that interfering with access to essential health care in a conflict zone is a serious violation of international humanitarian law.

Ban laid bare how widespread the problem has become. He called the attacks in Syria “appalling,” highlighted the systematic destruction of health facilities in Yemen, and called out the U.S. military attack on a hospital in Afghanistan:

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

Since the beginning of the conflict, Physicians for Human Rights has documented more than 360 attacks on some 250 medical facilities [in Syria]. More than 730 medical personnel have been killed….

Last year, the United Nations verified 59 attacks against 34 hospitals [in Yemen]. In January this year, Coalition air strikes hit the Shiara Hospital, which serves around 120,000 people in Sa’ada Governorate. And last October in Kunduz, Afghanistan, a bombing by United States military destroyed another MSF hospital and killed dozens, as patients were burned alive in their beds.

The resolution passed unanimously. It had been drafted by New Zealand, Spain, Uruguay, Egypt, and Japan. Vice News describes the content of what was voted on:

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 last part about independent investigations is key. Without some mechanism of accountability the attacks on health facilities are likely to go on. And without independent investigations, perpetrators are likely to elude accountability.

In fact, the UNSC resolution came on the heels of last week’s release of a controversial Pentagon investigation of its own conduct in the bombing of a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz Afghanistan last year. Joanne Liu, president of Doctors Without Borders, addressed the Security Council:

“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. …

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

The Pentagon report carefully avoided a finding of intent to hit the hospital. But in fact the laws of war do not require intent to find that a crime has been committed. The report itself alludes to this. For example, attacks must be “proportional” and the Pentagon’s report acknowledges that the attack was not needed militarily and was therefore not proportional. Beyond that the specific war crime of murder can also happen when the attack is “reckless”.

Naureen Shah, director of Amnesty International’s Security With Human Rights program, addressed this legal test of “recklessness” with The Huffington Post:

They have acknowledged all of these mistakes — that there were so many things they could have done to prevent this from happening. Twenty-nine minutes of bombing a hospital and no one notices that the wrong building is being bombed — if that’s not recklessness, I don’t know what is.

The Security Council took a positive step with this high-profile “reminder” about the laws of war and international humanitarian law. But without better enforcement mechanisms, actual compliance with those laws could remain elusive.

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