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“Attacks on medical units in Syria may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity” – UN expert warn

GENEVA (10 June 2016) – The UN Special Rapporteur on the right to health, Dainius Pūras, today condemned the direct targeting and continued damage and destruction of medical units, such as hospitals and other healthcare facilities, in the context of the ongoing war in Syria.

“These incidents amount to war crimes and may constitute crimes against humanity, as well as a violation of the right to health, and those responsible must be brought to justice,” the expert warned.

“Medical units are being damaged and destroyed in large numbers throughout Syria, revealing what has become a repugnant hallmark of this horrific conflict,” Mr. Pūras said. “The sheer number of such facilities being hit, as well as information relating to some of the incidents, suggests that some hospitals and other medical facilities may have been directly targeted.”

The Special Rapporteur stressed that the intentional deprivation of people’s right to access medical care, goods and services through the destruction of hospitals and other medical facilities “is a clear violation of the right to health.”

From the beginning of May 2016 alone, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights documented incidents involving at least 8 medical units in Syria in which dozens of civilians were killed and injured.

By way of example on 3 May, the al-Dhabeet Maternity Hospital in Government-controlled western Aleppo was put out of service and three civilians reportedly killed  by unidentified explosive devices. On 17 May, airstrikes destroyed the Martyr Ziad al-Bika’I field hospital in Khan al-Shih, in Rural Damascus Governorate. The hospital was the largest in the area of Western Ghouta and had a specialist surgery for gynecological-related care. It provided services to approximately 4,200 patients, including around 60 caesarean births per month.

Just this week, on Wednesday 8 June 2016, several attacks against medical units took place in opposition controlled areas of Aleppo killing at least 15 civilians.

The UN is documenting the destruction of hospitals and other medical facilities through airstrikes, shelling, and the use of car and suicide bombers, the majority located in opposition controlled areas. Medical units are now viewed by many in Syria as areas of great danger with civilians choosing not to access them due to fears for their safety. Clinics are also increasingly being located under-ground.

Protected status

Intentionally directing attacks against medical units such as hospitals and places where the sick and wounded are collected is prohibited under international law, as long as they are not military objectives. In this regard, providing care to sick or wounded fighters, medical staff being lightly armed for their own protection, the facility having a protective barrier around it, or the lack of any distinguishable emblem on the structure are not cause in themselves for medical units to lose their protection.

Should they lose their protected status due to their being used to carry out acts harmful to the enemy, there remains an obligation on the attacker to issue a warning setting out a reasonable time for such use to desist.  Even after such a reasonable time has elapsed, any such attack must still comply with the principles of distinction, proportionality, and precautions in attack.

At the same time, the location of military objectives such as soldiers or military hardware in protected structures such as medical units with the intent of trying to prevent the targeting of those military objectives is also a violation of international humanitarian law.

“I call on all parties to respect the special protections granted to medical units by international humanitarian law, and demand that those responsible be brought to justice. Investigations into all such incidents must be promptly, fully and impartially carried out,” the Special Rapporteur said.

Mr. Pūras also urged all parties to the conflict to grant full access to the territory of the Syrian Arab Republic and cooperation to both the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the Independent Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic.

“I further call on the Government of Syria, and all other actors exercising de facto authority over territory in the Syrian Arab Republic, to respect and protect the right to health of all under their authority and to ensure that civilians have access to adequate medical care,” the expert concluded.

The Special Rapporteur is an independent expert appointed by the UN Human Rights Council to help States, and others, promote and protect the right to the highest attainable standard of health. Mr. Dainius Pūras (Lithuania) is a medical doctor with notable expertise on mental health, child health, and public health policies. He is a Professor and the Head of the Centre for Child psychiatry social paediatrics at Vilnius University, and teaches at the Faculty of Medicine, Institute of International relations and political science and Faculty of Philosophy of Vilnius University, Lithuania. Learn more, visit: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Health/Pages/SRRightHealthIndex.aspx

The UN Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights, is the general name of the independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms of the Human Rights Council that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

UN Human Rights, country page – Syria: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Countries/MENARegion/Pages/IQIndex.aspx

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