PHR: UN Plan to Investigate Recent Attacks on Health Care in Syria Woefully Insufficient

NEW YORK, Sept. 16, 2019 – The United Nations Secretary-General’s newly-formed Board of Inquiry (BOI) to investigate attacks on UN-supported facilities in northwest Syria will not provide an adequate degree of desperately needed protection for civilians in that area, according to Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), which has rigorously researched and documented attacks on Syria’s health care system since the beginning of the conflict. The BOI lacks the power to uphold international humanitarian law requiring special protection of health facilities, personnel, patients, and civilian infrastructure during armed conflict.

Physicians for Human Rights’ director of policy, Susannah Sirkin, addressed the UN Security Council on July 30, demanding that the Secretary-General launch an immediate investigation into recent attacks on health care facilities in Idlib and northwestern Syria. These attacks have occurred in violation of the UN deconfliction mechanism, which was designed a year ago to protect health care and other humanitarian facilities whose locations were shared with parties to the conflict.

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Sirkin released the following statement in response to the announcement of the Board of Inquiry’s establishment:

“For more than eight years, Syrian armed forces and their allies have systematically targeted health facilities as a strategy of war to punish civilians residing in opposition-held territories, destroy their ability to survive, and draw them into government-held areas or drive them out of the country. Syria and Russia are responsible for over 91 percent of the attacks on health care facilities that have become a disgraceful component of the conflict in Syria in gross violation of humanitarian norms.

“Though Secretary-General António Guterres’ Board of Inquiry is tasked with investigating only certain recent attacks on health facilities  in the so-called ‘demilitarized’ area in the northwest of Syria, it is critical that the United Nations and its member states investigate and assure accountability for the hundreds of attacks on Syrian medical facilities since March 2011, when the conflict started.

“This limited, current inquiry being launched by the Secretary-General is focused on the failure of the UN-brokered deconfliction mechanism, which was a desperate measure following relentless, targeted attacks on health facilities. Through this inquiry process, responsible parties should be identified, and the Board’s findings should be made public. Failure to do so will be an insult to the patients, health care workers, and staff of humanitarian organizations who have died or suffered in the wake of these attacks.

“More importantly, the focus on the UN Board of Inquiry should not distract from the urgent need to immediately stop the atrocious assault on civilians in northwest Syria, so many of whom are trapped with nowhere to flee, and the imperative to hold perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity accountable. Given the failure of the UN Security Council to refer the case of Syria to the International Criminal Court as a result of Russia’s veto, national courts must step up efforts to prosecute the crimes, and UN member states must re-invest in the International Impartial and Independent Mechanism (IIIM) for Syria. Only through international accountability will a sustainable peace built on the foundations of justice be accomplished in Syria.”

Physicians for Human Rights has rigorously researched and documented attacks on Syria’s health care system by all parties to the conflict since the beginning of the conflict. More than 90 percent are attributed to either Syrian forces specifically, or to Syrian and Russian forces. From March 2011 through August 2019, PHR has corroborated 583 attacks on at least 350 separate health facilities in Syria as well as the killing of 912 medical personnel. Since the Syrian government’s escalation on Idlib began in late April, PHR has received reports of 57 attacks on health facilities. Among the many it has confirmed, there were three on a single day – May 5. On that day, Russian or Syrian government airstrikes damaged and put out of service Kafr Zita Surgical Unit at the Martyr Hassan al-Araj Hospital (also known as the Cave Hospital) in Hama; warplanes attacked the vicinity of the Termala Women and Children’s Hospital in Hama, damaging equipment and infrastructure; and Russian or Syrian government forces hit the Kafr Nabl Surgical Hospital in Idlib, damaging the foundation and putting it out of service.

Phelim Kine, deputy director of programs and director of research and investigations at Physicians for Human Rights, who is available for comment from the United Nations today, added, “The blatant attacks on health facilities in the face of the UN-brokered agreement establishing a deconfliction mechanism to protect them are well-documented, abhorrent, and in grave violation of international humanitarian law. The United Nations Secretary-General has a responsibility to use his position to ensure that civilians are protected – and that the perpetrators of war crimes targeting health care facilities and harming health care personnel and patients, including those so damaged they are forced to go out of service – are held accountable.

“The Russian government’s continued unconditional support for the murderous regime of Bashar al-Assad, and spread of misinformation attempting to minimize the crimes of Assad’s forces and its allies, including Russia, must be called out for the deception it seeks to create and denial of incontrovertible fact. The Russian government has unconscionable quantities of Syrian civilian blood on its hands due to years of financially supporting, arming, and equipping Assad’s war machine and for conducting military operations targeting civilians that may constitute war crimes. The Russian government should be using its leverage with Assad to stem this slaughter.”

PHR has developed and maintains the following resources documenting the impact of the Syrian conflict on the country’s health care infrastructure:

  • Interactive Map: Illegal Attacks on Health Care in Syria
  • Facts and data: Medical Personnel Targeted in Syria
  • Factsheet: The Syrian Conflict: Eight Years of Devastation and Destruction of the Health System
  • Case Studies: Specific incidents of attacks on health care facilities and personnel in Syria
  • Recent PHR blog posts (full blog archive concerning Syria):
    • Blog: Under-Secretary-General Mark Lowcock and Attacks on Health in Syria
    • Blog: The Appalling Rise in Attacks on Health Care in Conflict in 2018
    • Blog: Destroying Hospitals to Win the War

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a New York-based advocacy organization that uses science and medicine to prevent mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. Learn more here.