Background - Medical Facilities Under Fire

Background - Medical Facilities Under Fire

Sat Jul 01 2017
An investigation about attacking Syrian hospitals

Hospitals have been forced into the frontlines of the Syrian conflict since it began six years ago. On 22 May 2011, two months after opposition protests against President Bashar al-Assad began, government forces stormed the hospital in Dara'a, kicked out non-essential medical staff, and placed snipers on the roof. The following day snipers began firing on demonstrators, marking the start of escalations that have continued to this day.

In 2012, in a widely condemned move in violation of International Humanitarian Law, President Bashar al-Assad introduced counter-terrorism legislation which declared illegal any medical facilities operating without government approval. Requests for government approval to operate medical facilities in opposition held territory were ignored, effectively making illegal the operation of any opposition held hospitals. The law also criminalised failing to report "anti-government activity," which according to the UN, "effectively criminalised medical aid to the opposition."

Since then, hospitals and medical facilities have repeatedly been bombed in attacks largely attributed by international human rights monitors to Syrian and Russian forces. For example, in 2013 the United Nations Independent Commission of Inquiry, the group responsible for investigating alleged war crimes in Syria, found that attacks on hospitals are used systemically as a weapon of war by the Assad regime. The Commission of Inquiry additionally found that deliberate attacks against medical staff and ambulances amount to war crimes of intentionally attacking medical personnel and transport, who are awarded special protection under International Humanitarian Law.

Medecins Sans Frontieres, an international humanitarian non-profit organisation that supports many facilities in Syria, stopped sharing data on medical facilities with Russian and Syrian forces because they feared the data they shared, such as geocoordinates, that was intended to protect civilians and humanitarian workers was being used to deliberately target them.

Under International Humanitarian Law, medical personnel enjoy a protected status. As part of their protected status, they cannot be targeted by any party to the armed conflict. The law defines medical personnel as, "Personnel assigned, by a party to the conflict, exclusively to the search for, collection, transportation, diagnosis or treatment, including first-aid treatment, of the wounded, sick and shipwrecked, and the prevention of disease, to the administration of medical units or to the operation or administration of medical transports." Moreover, persons performing medical duties who do not fall within this legal definition but are attacked when providing similar medical services enjoy the same protection under International Humanitarian Law.

The principle of proportionality also prohibits parties to an armed conflict from launching attacks that might incidentally harm medical personnel, creating excessive harm in relation to any concrete military advantages gained. Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions further requires that the wounded and the sick be collected and cared for during armed conflict.