Mohammed Badra / Reuters An injured man sits at a field hospital after what activists said was shelling by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the Duma neighborhood of Damascus November 18, 2014.

When Hospitals are Targets

How International Law Failed in Syria

“Seeking or providing healthcare must not be a death sentence,” stressed Joanne Liu, president of Doctors without Borders, during a speech to the UN Security Council on May 3. A few days earlier, bombs had blasted through the Al Quds hospital in Aleppo, killing the city’s last pediatrician, and then at a Syrian government maternity hospital. The Security Council voted unanimously in favor of a resolution demanding heightened protection for healthcare workers, their patients, and hospitals. “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,” stated UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. “This is shameful and inexcusable.”

The intentional targeting of hospitals and medical staff is not unique to the Syrian war; they’ve been hit in the wars in Yemen, South Sudan, and Sri Lanka as well. In fact, the problem is so grave that the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) has launched a new project called Health Care in Danger to raise awareness of the systemic problem.

But the situation in Syria is, in some ways, unprecedented. According to Physicians for Human Rights, a U.S.-based advocacy group, “the scale and brutality of the attacks on Syrian medical facilities and health professionals is unparalleled” in its 30-year history of documenting attacks on medical care. Michael Van Rooyen, director of Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, has concurred that “Syria’s been the most notable and notorious example” of a growing trend of intentional attacks on healthcare institutions. The situation has gotten so dire that medical professionals and NGOs there have been forced to provide care in the most unlikely of places, including factories, caves, and chicken coops.

A boy, who was evacuated with others from two rebel-besieged towns of Foua and Kefraya in the northwestern province of Idlib, is seen standing inside a hospital that was struck by an explosion on the outskirts of the Sayeda Zeinab district south of Damasc

A boy, who was evacuated with others from two rebel-besieged towns of Foua and Kefraya in the northwestern province of Idlib, is seen standing inside a hospital that was struck by an explosion on the outskirts of the Sayeda Zeinab district south of Damascus, Syria, April 25, 2016.

The immediate deaths and injuries caused by attacks on hospitals is a tragedy. But the long-term effects might be even more devastating, as routine care for manageable diseases becomes unavailable. It is thus no wonder that targeting medical infrastructure is a war crime under international humanitarian

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