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Women walk past damage near the Doctors Without Borders-backed al-Quds hospital after it was hit by airstrikes, in a rebel-held area of Syria's Aleppo, on April 28.  (Photo: Abdalrhman Ismail/Reuters)

MSF Excoriates US, Russia, UK Over Complicity in Hospital Bombings

'Turning hospitals into battlefields is a grave breach of humanitarian law and an affront to humanity.'—Susannah Sirkin, Physicians for Human Rights

Andrea Germanos

On the heels of a World Health Organization report documenting pervasive—and often deliberate—attacks on medical facilities in conflicts, a humanitarian specialist with Doctors Without Borders is stressing that the world's major powers are themselves complicit in such attacks.

Speaking to the Guardian, Michiel Hofman directed his sharp criticism at four of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council—France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—which provide arms, intelligence, and logistical support to forces which have conducted these often deadly attacks.

To wit: The U.S.-backed Saudi coalition's attacks on Yemen, the UK and France's weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, and Russian attacks on healthcare facilities in Syria.  Not to mention the U.S. military's bombing of the medical charity's Kunduz, Afghanistan hospital in 2015. 

And in April, a Doctors Without Borders- and International Committee of the Red Cross-supported hospital in the Syrian city of Aleppo was bombed, destroying the key pediatric facility and killing at least 14 people, while just late Monday, a wave of Russian strikes on hospitals in the Syrian city of Idlib killed scores. From the Guardian:

“When we talk about the bombing of hospitals, bombing means air forces,” [Hofman] said. “Rebel groups don’t have air forces, so this is exclusively states who by definition have much larger firepower [...] and they are the ones that actually signed these conventions.”

Hofman expects little fruit to bear from the UN Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution last month, which, as the New York Times reported, sought

to remind warring parties everywhere of the rules, demanding protection for those who provide health care 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.”

Hofman told the Guardian that "resolutions that pass unanimously are usually the ones that get disregarded," adding that the UNSC members themselves "are responsible because they're part of coalitions that are part of bombing campaigns."

"Maybe we should use the format of an open letter to the president of China saying, as the only remaining permanent member of the security council who is currently not bombing anyone, could you please remind your colleagues?" the paper reports him as saying.

Following the resolution's adoption, Joanne Liu, the president of Doctors Without Borders, also known by its French name and acronym, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), said that it "must lead to all state and non-state actors stopping the carnage. You must also pressure your allies to end attacks on health care and population in conflict areas. We will not leave patients behind, and we will not be silent. Seeking or providing health care must not be a death sentence. You will be judged not on your words today, but on your actions."

"You are charged with protecting peace and security," she said, and underscored Hofman's point, adding, "Yet four of the five members of this council have, to varying degrees, been associated with coalitions responsible for attacks on health structures over the last year."

"These include the NATO-led coalition in Afghanistan, the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen [and] the Russia-backed, Syrian-led coalition," Liu continued.

Days before the WHO report on attacks on medical facilities, the Safeguarding Health in Conflict Coalition released its own report finding that such attacks struck 19 countries during 2015 and the first three months of 2016.

"The report shows both the pervasiveness and variety of attacks on health facilities, staff and patients globally," said Leonard Rubenstein of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the coalition's chair. "Sometimes the attacks are deliberate, sometimes they're a product of indifference to the harms caused and sometimes they represent gross failures to take steps needed to prevent death and injury—but all violate long-standing obligations under international law."

Added Susannah Sirkin, director of international policy and partnerships at Physicians for Human Rights, one of the coalition's members: "These attacks terrorize and inflict suffering on patients and health care providers. Turning hospitals into battlefields is a grave breach of humanitarian law and an affront to humanity."

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