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Landmark Filing at UN Human Rights Committee Accuses Russia of Hospital Bombing in Syria

PHR files expert report in support of the complaint, detailing Russia’s “widespread and systematic” attacks on health facilities and workers in Syria

A new complaint filed at the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Committee accuses the Russian government of perpetrating a deliberate and deadly bombardment of a hospital in Syria. If successful, the complaint could mark the first time Russia is held to account for its violations committed during the Syrian conflict, and would be the first to advance accountability for attacks on health care in the country.

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) filed an independent expert report in support of the complaint, which details how Russia and Syrian armed forces engaged in widespread and systematic attacks against the Syrian health system since Russia’s intervention in the conflict in 2015. PHR’s expert report draws on more than a decade of the organization’s documentation and research into attacks on health in Syria and provides evidence of the scale and scope of these attacks, patterns of perpetration, and their acute and long-term impacts on the Syrian health system.

“Our evidence shows the Russian and Syrian governments’ attacks on health facilities and workers in Syria were widespread and systematic, part of a brutal strategy to deprive civilians of life-saving care and break their resilience. A positive finding in this case would at long last help to hold Russia to account for its violations in Syria. It would combat the long-standing impunity for attacks on health care in conflicts around the globe,” said Houssam al-Nahhas, MD, MPH, PHR’s Middle East and North Africa researcher and co-author of the expert report.

The complaint filed at the UN Human Rights Committee focuses on a series of Russian airstrikes on the Kafr Nabl Surgical Hospital in Idlib Province, Syria on May 5, 2019. Russian Air Force bombing of the hospital killed two civilians and severely damaged the facility. There was no active fighting taking place that day near this fully functioning hospital, which was located about 20 kilometers away from the frontlines.

The complaint was filed by a Syrian man whose two cousins were killed in the attack, and by Hand in Hand for Aid and Development, the humanitarian organization that was supporting the hospital at the time, which is representing the interests of the patients who were in the facility at the time of the attack. The applicants are represented by lawyers of the Open Society Justice Initiative, with Professor Philip Leach, professor of human rights law at the UK’s Middlesex University, as co-counsel.

“As we approach the five-year mark since the attacks on Kafr Nabl hospital, the UN Human Rights Committee has an opportunity to deliver first-of-its-kind accountability for the Russian government’s violations – and for attacks on health care broadly,” said Dr. al-Nahhas.

The UN Human Rights Committee is a body of 18 independent experts that monitors implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), an international human rights treaty which has been signed by 173 countries, including the Russian Federation.

The complaint accuses the Russian Federation of perpetrating a clear and serious violation of international humanitarian law and international human rights law by deliberately attacking a protected medical facility, in breach of the right to life under the ICCPR.

“This complaint before a preeminent international human rights tribunal exposes the Russian government and armed forces’ deliberate strategy of targeting health care in clear violation of the laws of war,” said James A. Goldston, executive director of the Open Society Justice Initiative. “It must remind us all that attacks on protected health care facilities – whether in Syria, Sudan, Ukraine, or the Gaza Strip – are an abomination that must never be normalized.”

Since the start of the conflict in Syria in 2011, PHR has documented attacks on health workers, facilities, other infrastructure by all parties to the conflict. As of April 2024, PHR has documented 604 attacks on medical facilities and the killings of at least 949 medical personnel, with 90 percent of these attacks perpetrated by the Syrian and/or Russian governments.

PHR’s expert report published today highlights the numbers and patterns of attacks on health care in Syria and examines evidence pointing to Russia’s involvement in these attacks, which both increased and accelerated following its entry into the conflict on the Syrian government’s behalf in September 2015. The PHR report offers a case study of a 2021 attack on al-Atareb Hospital in western Aleppo, which killed seven patients. This attack is an example of the targeting of isolated health facilities that has been a hallmark of the Syrian conflict and the use of the “double tap” strategy by Russian and Syrian forces, in which first-responders and volunteers would rush to the site of a hospital bombing only to be attacked in the same location again. PHR’s expert report documents the devastating impact of these attacks on public health in Syria. The report then considers the various ways in which these attacks violate the right to life by depriving civilians of access to health care and shows how current, continued attacks by Russia on the health care system in Ukraine mirror the patterns observed in Syria; PHR and its partners have documented a total of 1,382 attacks on Ukraine’s health care system since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

“As our report shows, this took many insidious forms: direct deaths from attacks; diminished availability of health services; greater distance to access care due to facility closures; the exodus of health workers from Syria; and increased reluctance to access health care due to the fear of attacks” said Dr. al-Nahhas.

The UN Human Rights Committee complaint is informed by a trove of video and audio recordings of the attack, as well as eyewitness accounts of Russian Air Force involvement in the attacks. The materials feature observations of Russian aircraft in the area and audio communications between Russian forces, including pilots confirming that aerial munitions had been launched at the exact time the hospital strikes were recorded on video. The complaint highlights evidence that was also featured in a trailblazing investigation by the New York Times published in October 2019.

To learn more about the complaint, explore the complaint summary page, a video produced by OSJI, and PHR’s expert report, which is available in English and Arabic.

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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