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PHR: UN Investigation into Recent Attacks on Health Care in Syria is a Positive Step, But Overdue and Insufficient

Probe must make findings public, assign responsibility for crimes

NEW YORK – United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres’ announcement today of a UN probe into the latest attacks on health care facilities in Syria in violation of a UN mechanism to protect them, constitutes an important but long overdue step, said Physicians for Human Rights (PHR). That announcement came just two days after PHR’s director of policy, Susannah Sirkin, addressed the UN Security Council, demanding that the Secretary-General launch an immediate investigation into recent attacks on health care in Idlib and northwestern Syria in violation of protection agreements.

According to Guterres’ statement, the “internal” Board of Inquiry will investigate “destruction of, or damage to facilities on the deconfliction list and UN-supported facilities.”

In response, Sirkin said, “The Secretary-General’s decision to launch a Board of Inquiry is welcome – and critical – but just one overdue step, as the UN failed to respond robustly after the first violations of a March 12, 2018 agreement to share locations of health facilities.

“Given that Syrian and Russian forces’ attacks on health care in Syria continue in direct violation of the deconfliction mechanism, the urgent establishment of the Board of Inquiry, the rapid execution of its investigation, and a public report-out of its findings will be essential if preventing more crimes, and accountability for them, are to occur. The longer the investigation takes, the greater the risk of continued attacks against civilians and destruction of health care infrastructure.

“PHR vehemently repeats our call on Syria and Russia to immediately stop attacking hospitals and other vital civilian infrastructure. We ask that the UN do more than just investigate. The Security Council should do everything in its power to ensure this violence ends before more innocent lives are lost.”

PHR has meticulously researched, documented, and mapped attacks on health care 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.

The Syrian government and/or the Russian government committed 91 percent – 521 – of the attacks.

As Sirkin shared in her remarks to the Security Council on Tuesday, “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.” She went on to say, “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.”

Full text and a photo of Sirkin’s remarks to the UN Security Council on July 30 are available at PHR’s website.

As just one example of the specific cases PHR has documented, the organization has confirmed that a single facility, the Kafr Nabl Surgical Hospital in southern Idlib, has been attacked at least 12 times, leading to at least 21 deaths, including a newborn baby, civilians, and medical staff. As recently as July 4, the hospital was hit and destroyed by three rockets, just two months after the previous attack. These attacks caused significant damage and repeated disruption of services.

The hospital’s administrators shared the facility’s coordinates with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, and the facility’s humanitarian status was verified by the UN. Within the UN’s deconfliction mechanism, the exact location of the facility and its status were then shared with parties to the conflict. And still, the hospital was attacked multiple times after its coordinates were shared.

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
  • 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.

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