At least 500 attacks on health care have been perpetrated during Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine since February, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Surpassing this grim milestone in just over six months of conflict underscores how the Russian government has targeted Ukraine’s health system as a strategy of war, as it has done in Syria, and that Russia must be held accountable for its violations of international law, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) said today.
“Ukrainian medics are under siege, targeted for doing their jobs of providing impartial health care. 503 reported attacks on health care in just over six months marks a colossal tragedy that calls out for justice and accountability,” said Christian De Vos, JD, PhD, director of research and investigations at PHR.
The WHO’s System for Surveillance on Attacks on Health Care (SSA) includes incidents of violence and obstruction that impact health facilities, health professionals, patients, health transports, and medical supplies. As of September 2, the WHO reports:
- 503 total attacks on health care
- 100 deaths from attacks on health care
- 129 injuries from attacks on health care
- 425 impacted facilities
- 72 impacted transports
- 60 impacted health personnel
- 24 impacted patients
“A single attack on health care is unacceptable and demands accountability. An average of several attacks per day – every single day since February 24 – represents a scale and pattern of carnage unseen anywhere else in the world this year,” said De Vos.
“After evading responsibility for its extensively–documented violence against health care in Syria, Russia has extended its brutal practices of bombing hospitals, detaining health workers, and terrorizing civilians by cutting off access to health care in Ukraine. All avenues – both domestic and international – must be pursued to prosecute those responsible for such attacks. We also call on the Russian government to immediately release all detained health workers, in line with its obligations under the Geneva Convention. We urge world leaders not to forget the barbarity being endured by health workers in Ukraine, as well as by their medical colleagues who are also under fire in Ethiopia, Myanmar, Syria, and beyond,” said De Vos.
“Destruction of medical facilities and attacks on medical personnel has been a distinct strategy of Russian warfare to destabilize Ukraine’s healthcare system,” said Pavlo Kovtoniuk, co-founder at Ukrainian Healthcare Center (UHC) and Ukraine’s former Deputy Minister of Health (2016-2019). “Prosecution of these crimes against healthcare should be prioritized at the international and national levels. Apart from building standalone cases dedicated to attacks on healthcare facilities and personnel, investigating bodies should consider making a case on the systematic pattern of terror against the civilian population involving massive attacks on healthcare facilities.”
Alongside its Ukraine-based partners, UHC and Truth Hounds, PHR submitted a statement to the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) for its 51st session in September, calling on member states to uphold their obligations to prevent and seek accountability for human rights violations in Ukraine, including attacks on health care, under UN Security Council Resolution 2286 (2016).
PHR is working to support health professionals in Ukraine to document and call attention to attacks on health care in the country. PHR is also making resources available to advance accountability for war crimes and other violations of the Geneva Conventions in Ukraine, including guidance on medical impartiality, forensic photography, how to obtain meaningful informed consent for a forensic evaluation for sexual assault, chemical warfare agent identification, and recognition and treatment of chlorine gas exposure.
In Syria, PHR has systematically documented 601 attacks on 400 medical facilities, the killing of at least 942 health workers, as well as the blocking of access to medical care and supplies since the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011. Approximately 90% of these attacks were perpetrated by the Syrian government and/or its Russian allies.
“Impunity for Russian war crimes perpetuates ongoing atrocity crimes in Ukraine. However, the reaction of the international humanitarian organizations has been irresolute and weak. We call on the WHO and its Member States to ensure swift political and institutional action toward the Russian Federation as an aggressor and suspected perpetrator in the massive attacks on health facilities in Ukraine,” said Kovtoniuk.
“From Tigray to Ukraine to Syria, violence against health care is a vastly underreported global crisis. The WHO, its Member States, and NGOs must continue to work together to strengthen data collection and ensure timely, credible, and detailed information about attacks on health care, including sharing data where security considerations permit and identifying perpetrators of attacks if they are known. Preventing violence against health care and holding perpetrators accountable is nearly impossible without good data,” said De Vos.
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.