NEW YORK – On behalf of Physicians for Human Rights, which has meticulously documented attacks on health care in Syria since the start of the conflict in 2011, Susannah Sirkin, the organization’s director of policy, addressed the UN Security Council on Tuesday, July 30, 2019. Following the Council session, 10 members of the UN Security Council met with Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, asking him to launch an investigation into attacks on civilian infrastructure, especially health facilities, in northwestern Syria.
Sirkin described the Syrian government’s repeated attacks on health facilities and personnel, calling out the Security Council for failure to act to protect Syrian civilians, and demanding that the Secretary-General launch an immediate investigation into the recent attacks in Idlib and northwestern Syria. She also repeated PHR’s call on the Syrian government and its Russian allies to cease attacks on health facilities and civilian infrastructure.
Video of Sirkin’s remarks available below. Full text and a photo are available at PHR’s website.
“Since the beginning of the conflict in Syria, the ongoing assault on health care facilities and personnel has been a defining factor – and a deliberate, inhumane, illegal strategy of war,” Sirkin said in her remarks. “When hospitals are destroyed, the loss is far greater than the buildings. When medical workers are killed, the human toll is not just their lives, but also the exponential number of people who suffer and die without medical treatment.”
PHR has researched, documented, and mapped attacks on medical infrastructure in Syria since the start of the conflict in March 2011. From March 2011 through July 2019, PHR has confirmed that there were at least 578 attacks on 350 separate facilities, as well as at least 890 medical personnel killed. Ninety-one percent – 521 of the attacks – were committed by the Syrian government and/or the Russian government.
“Each of the attacks on a functioning health facility is a war crime,” Sirkin said. “Taken together, these assaults constitute crimes against humanity.”
PHR’s data demonstrates that the Syrian government and its allies have systematically targeted medical facilities and professionals as part of their strategy of war, criminalizing medical care and denying medical access in the process.
Sirkin asked the Security Council to take immediate action. “Your current collective inaction is a clear derogation of your responsibility to protect,” she said. “Civilians in Syria have been let down by the Security Council’s failure to act, by individual governments who were in positions to stop the carnage, and sadly, by UN agencies hamstrung by rules that have enabled the perpetrators to flout the most basic humanitarian agreements with zero consequence.
“The continued failure of the UN Security Council to end impunity for these crimes is a blight on the credibility of this body to carry out its core mandate. Continued inaction sends a message of abandonment and erosion of humanitarian law not only to those in Syria, but to all people subjected to war crimes and crimes against humanity.”
On behalf of PHR, Sirkin called on Syria and Russia to immediately stop attacking hospitals and other vital civilian infrastructure. She urged the UN Secretary-General to launch an immediate investigation into attacks on health facilities and personnel in Idlib, northern Hama, and western Aleppo, and into the failure of the deconfliction mechanism – agreements coordinated by the UN to notify all parties to the conflict of the locations of health facilities in order to protect them. These agreements have been repeatedly violated.
Sirkin oversees PHR’s international policy engagement, including the organization’s work with the United Nations, domestic and international justice systems, and human rights coalitions. Sirkin serves as PHR’s representative to the Safeguarding Health in Conflict Coalition. Sirkin joined PHR’s staff in 1987 and serves as a senior advisor across all areas, particularly PHR’s work to stop sexual violence in conflict zones – an initiative she created in 2011. Sirkin served as PHR’s representative on the Steering Committee of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines from 1992-1997, a campaign for which PHR shared in the 1997 Nobel Prize for Peace.
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
- Findings as of July 2019
- 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 (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.