UN reminds warring parties: Keep hospitals safe

NEW YORK • The rules of war, enshrined for decades, require hospitals to be treated as sanctuaries from war - and for health workers to be left alone to do their jobs.

But on today's battlefields, attacks on hospitals and ambulances, surgeons, nurses and midwives have become common, punctuating what aid workers and United Nations officials describe as a new low in the savagery of war.

On Tuesday, the Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution to remind warring parties everywhere of the rules, demanding protection for those who provide healthcare and accountability for violators. The measure urged member states to conduct independent investigations and prosecute those found responsible for violations "in accordance with domestic and international law". But the resolution also raised an awkward question: Can the world's most powerful countries be expected to enforce the rules when they and their allies are accused of flouting them?

Russian warplanes were blamed for the bombing of Syrian health centres, for instance, and Syrian soldiers, backed by the Kremlin, continue to remove life-saving medicines, even painkillers, from UN aid convoys heading into rebel-held areas.

At the same time, Britain and the United States back a Saudi-led coalition that is accused of attacking health facilities in Yemen. China and Russia support the government of Sudan, which is accused of at least two attacks on health facilities supported by Doctors Without Borders in Kordofan state.

From the charity's international president, Dr Joanne Liu, came the sharpest rebuke to the council's five permanent, veto-wielding members. "You, therefore, must live up to your extraordinary responsibilities, and set an example for all states," she said. "I repeat: Stop these attacks." Without naming the countries, she criticised the US - for having refused to submit the US attack in October on her organisation's hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, to an independent international inquiry - just as she scolded Russia for having denied that its warplanes had hit civilian targets in Syria.

There is plenty of blame to go around. In 11 of the world's war zones, between 2011 and 2014, the International Committee of the Red Cross tallied nearly 2,400 acts of violence against those who were trying to provide healthcare. That works out to two attacks a day.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 05, 2016, with the headline 'UN reminds warring parties: Keep hospitals safe'. Print Edition | Subscribe