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13 Years of Violence Against Health Workers and Facilities in Syria Demonstrates Need for Accountability: PHR

Since the beginning of the Syrian uprising in March 2011 – 13 years ago this week – the Syrian government and its Russian allies have systematically targeted health care in an attempt to break the resilience of the Syrian people and deprive them of their right to safely access medical care. 

“As we mark 13 years since the peaceful protests that led to violent reprisals and ultimately a horrific conflict, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is continuing to shine a light on how attacks on Syria’s health system have been used as a weapon of war,” said Houssam al-Nahhas, MD, MPH, MENA researcher for PHR. “While many in the international community seek to ‘move on’ or focus elsewhere, Syrians are still in crisis and many are still missing. They deserve our support. We continue our long-standing calls for justice and accountability for crimes perpetrated during these brutal and difficult years.” 

At least 400 medical facilities were targeted at least 604 times and 949 health care providers have been killed since March 2011, according to data from PHR. The vast majority of these violations – at least 90 percent – were perpetrated by the Syrian government and its allies, including Russia.  

The systematic targeting of health infrastructure and health care providers has forced thousands of health care providers to flee the country. Thousands of other health workers in Syria are still missing and forcibly disappeared. 

At least 1,100 health care providers who were detained in 2011 and 2012 are still missing, according to data analyzed by PHR’s research team. PHR’s research also shows that health care providers who were detained for providing health care to injured civilians were 400 percent more likely to be killed in detention facilities and 550 percent more likely to be forcibly disappeared compared to health care workers who were detained for political reasons. Syrian medical professionals were ill-treated, tortured, and executed for providing health care to civilians, who were perceived by the government as enemies. 

“Revealing the fate and whereabouts of missing civilians, including health workers, would offer a measure of much-needed relief to their families, friends, and colleagues,” said Dr. al-Nahhas. “The new United Nations Independent Institution for Missing Persons in Syria, which must still be funded and established, will be the first step towards fulfilling the right to information for their families. All parties to the conflict should fully collaborate with this institution. Any normalization with the Syrian government should be preconditioned on the Syrian government’s credible collaboration with the new UN mechanism.”  

Indiscriminate and deliberate targeting of health care in Syria have also crippled the country’s health system and deprived Syrians of their right to access safe health care across the country. In March 2023, PHR and partners published a report showing how violence against health care has led to sexual and reproductive health services becoming increasingly insufficient, particularly affecting the most marginalized, including women in camps, those with disabilities, those with limited income sources, and adolescent girls married at a young age. The earthquake that struck northwest Syria in February 2023 compounded the crisis, further exacerbating the already dire situation.   

Interviews conducted with Syrian health care providers and community members showed that violence against health care resulted in the increased use of cesarean sections among health care providers and pregnant women, as they sought to minimize their time in health facilities due to the risks of attacks. 

“In Syria’s catastrophic war, women and girls have all too often paid the highest price,” said Dr. al-Nahhas. “The fundamental right to health is frequently violated. Many Syrian women lack the basic safety and resources to be able to deliver a baby safely. Instead of hospitals being places of refuge and healing, they have routinely been turned into targets by the Syrian government and its allies. 

“As we reflect on 13 years of devastating conflict, PHR urges accountability for attacks on health care as crimes against humanity and war crimes. To move forward, it is essential that those who have perpetrated crimes be held to account and authorities reveal the fate and whereabouts of those who are still missing and disappeared,” said Dr. al-Nahhas. 

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.

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