Attacks on Medical Workers in War Zones under Fire

The growing number of indiscriminate bombings in three of the most devastating military conflicts currently underway -– in Syria, Afghanistan and Yemen – are taking a heavy toll on medical personnel serving with humanitarian organizations — along with thousands of civilians caught in the crossfire between government forces and rebel groups.

The U.S. bombing of a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders in Kunduz, Afghanistan last October, and the Syrian government’s attacks on doctors and medical facilities, have been singled out as just two examples of the dangerous environments under which health care workers operate.

The attacks have also prevented medical care being provided to populations in need—and largely under siege.

When medical staff are killed in these attacks, the many lives that could be saved are also jeopardized, according to experts from Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), Doctors Without Borders, and the Open Society Foundation.

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Speaking at a panel discussion this week, some of the experts said when combatants destroy a hospital, thousands of people who are sick and wounded, are left with nowhere to go.

Asked if these attacks are by design or by accident, Elise Baker, program associate at Physicians for Human Rights, told IPS the five-year-old conflict in Syria has been marked by government forces orchestrating a deliberate campaign to destroy the health care infrastructure and attack medical personnel in opposition-controlled areas.

“This is just one element of a campaign against civilians which is in direct violation of the key principle of distinction in the laws of war which makes it unlawful to ever target civilians or civilian objects such as hospitals and schools”.

She said additional evidence of attacks on health care facilities as being part of a campaign is that humanitarian aid, including medical supplies and medicines, have largely been distributed through Damascus.

Government forces have obstructed the delivery of these and other life-saving supplies to opposition-held areas or only let convoys through after stripping out medical supplies.

Baker said PHR’s map documenting the attacks on hospitals does not include strikes “that we believe were accidental or – to use the parlance of humanitarian law, a result of collateral damage.”

“PHR is deeply concerned about the reports of attacks on hospitals in Yemen.”

However, she said, it is unclear at this point whether the Saudi-led coalition is targeting hospitals or if hospitals are being hit as the coalition members carpet bomb areas in an indiscriminate manner, and in turn, hospitals, like civilians and civilian objects, are paying the price.

According to PHR’s data, 2015 marked the worst year on record for attacks on medical facilities in Syria, with government forces responsible for most of the more than 100 attacks.

Between March 2011 and November 2015, there were 336 attacks on 240 medical facilities in Syria, 90 percent of them committed by Syria and its allied forces.

In the same time period, 697 medical personnel were killed, with Syria and its allies responsible for 95 percent of the deaths.

PHR tracks these findings in an interactive map, which includes photographic and video documentation of these crimes. In November, PHR released a report detailing the Syrian government’s attacks on health care, “Aleppo Abandoned: A Case Study on Health Care in Syria.”

Asked about a letter from the Saudi government urging UN and international aid agencies to leave areas controlled by the Houthi rebel forces in Yemen to facilitate bombings, UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric confirmed receipt of the letter.

“Yes, there’s been an exchange of letters between the Permanent Mission of Saudi Arabia and our colleagues at the Office of Humanitarian Affairs,” he said.