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Attacks on Health Workers in War Zones Continue, Despite U.N. Resolution

UNITED NATIONS — A string of blatantly illegal attacks on clinics and ambulances in war zones around the world prompted the Security Council last year to demand protection for health workers and accountability for their attackers.

It made no difference whatsoever. In conflict zones, attacks on doctors, nurses and ambulance drivers continue unabated, flouting one of the oldest principles of international law: to respect the neutrality of medical workers in war.

In Afghanistan in March, gunmen disguised as doctors stormed a military hospital in Kabul, killing dozens in an attack claimed by the Islamic State.

In Yemen, the Saudi-led military coalition, which is backed by the United States, bombed a hospital supported by the medical charity Doctors Without Borders in August, killing at least 15.

The resolution, passed last May, served to remind countries of the laws of war that have long been on the books. Targeting a medical center is a war crime if it is intentional — and that is a difficult legal hurdle to overcome.

Susannah Sirkin, director of international policy for Physicians for Human Rights, an advocacy group, said the Council had done little to actually carry out the measure. “It’s just a bunch of words on paper,” she said. “There’s been no effort at implementing it.”

Syria alone accounts for nearly two-thirds of all attacks on medical centers documented in 2016 by the World Health Organization. For instance, in the blitz on Aleppo in November, the Syrian government bombed two hospitals providing trauma care in the rebel-held territory and hit the only children’s hospital operating there.

The W.H.O. data, released on Friday, shows that attacks on health facilities have gone on unabated since the Security Council adopted the resolution that explicitly condemned such strikes and called for accountability.

The W.H.O. tallied 302 such attacks last year, compared with 256 in 2015 and 338 in 2014.

Data from the first quarter of this year shows that the world is on track for another deadly year.

Ms. Sirkin’s organization is part of a coalition of health and human rights groups, Safeguarding Health in Conflict, that this month released its own report of attacks on medical facilities. The report documented attacks on health centers in 23 countries. It, too, found that Syria accounted for most of those attacks.

The Security Council met on Thursday to discuss developments since the resolution.

“These attacks are evidence of a broader trend: Parties to conflict are treating hospitals and health clinics as targets, rather than respecting them as sanctuaries,” António Guterres, the secretary general, told the council. “This goes against the spirit of the Geneva Conventions, the fundamental tenets of international humanitarian law, and our basic humanity.”

Few Council members can claim innocence. Russia and its ally the Syrian government are accused of indiscriminate attacks on hospitals and clinics in rebel-held areas. Red Crescent ambulances have been attacked repeatedly as they rushed to help people hurt in the conflict.

Syrian forces have routinely prevented medicines from reaching rebel-held territory. Rebels have been culpable, too, shelling a hospital on the government-held side of Aleppo last May, just hours before the Council resolution was adopted.

The United States, for its part, is implicated in attacks by the Saudi-led coalition that it supports in Yemen. And in 2015, American forces repeatedly bombed a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan. The White House issued a rare apology, but the United States has refused to submit itself to an independent international inquiry.

Governments condemn attacks on health facilities, but selectively, when their rivals are blamed for it. The Saudis rail against the Syrian government for attacks on clinics in areas held by the opposition. Russia uses the Saudi-led strikes in Yemen to skewer the United States and Britain.

“The frequency of attacks and the impunity afforded to their perpetrators demands strong, sustained and fearless action at the national as well as global level,” the coalition said in its recent reporting through on their promises. The resolution condemns the “prevailing impunity” for attacks on health centers and calls on governments to carry out independent investigations.

The coalition pushed governments to adopt military rules of engagement that protect health facilities, to train military forces to obey those rules and to ensure that perpetrators were held accountable. It also urged the secretary general to publish a kind of name-and-shame report, highlighting every year what measures countries have or have not taken to follow through on the Council resolution.

In Syria, by far the worst violator of these laws, the attacks have become so endemic that health providers have had to take radical measures. Underground bunker hospitals have dotted the battlefield.

The International Committee of the Red Cross has recently advised front-line medical providers to take a variety of precautions. They include erecting high boundary walls, developing contingency plans ensuring that health facilities can be self-sufficient for about 10 days in the event of fighting nearby and using their own judgment on whether to share their location coordinates with warring parties.

A version of this article appears in print on May 26, 2017, on Page A4 of the New York edition with the headline: Despite a U.N. Resolution, Attacks Continue on Medical Personnel in War Zones.


(C) 2017 The New York Times

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