Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is gravely concerned by and condemns the wanton aggression, indiscriminate attacks, and violence against civilians perpetrated by the Russian Federation during its ongoing unlawful invasion of Ukraine. Russia must cease hostilities and abide by international law, including ensuring the protection of civilians, PHR said today.
Early reports of a ballistic missile strike next to a hospital in Vuhledar, Ukraine raise alarms that Russia may again perpetrate violence against health workers and health care facilities. Since its military intervention in the Syrian crisis in 2015, the Russian Federation and the Syrian government have launched hundreds of attacks on health facilities and workers, in flagrant violation of international law.
“PHR is appalled by the early scenes of devastation across Ukraine and calls on the international community to do everything at its disposal to prevent further bloodshed and protect civilians caught in the crossfire,” said Michele Heisler, MD, MPA, medical director at PHR and professor of internal medicine and public health at the University of Michigan. “We are at a perilous moment and the Russian Federation must step back from the brink. All parties to the conflict must abide by international human rights and humanitarian law.”
“After never being held accountable for its brutal and systematic targeting of health care workers and facilities in Syria, Russia is likely emboldened to attack hospitals and health workers in Ukraine. Escalating violence against health workers and patients is a clear and present danger. Hospitals are not a target and all parties must respect the work and independence of medical personnel, including volunteer medics who are rendering aid,” added Dr. Heisler.
A PHR team visited Ukraine in 2015, shortly after armed conflict in the country erupted in 2014, with researchers finding that the number of dead and missing overwhelmed the country’s limited capacity to identify them all. PHR researchers also highlighted how medical personnel were targeted by the Moscow-backed government during mass protests in Kyiv, Ukraine in 2014.
PHR warns about the acute potential for conflict-related sexual violence in Ukraine. Past conflicts in Ukraine and globally have resulted in conflict-related sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). It is critical that all warring parties refrain from SGBV. PHR also calls on authorities to ensure sustained access to comprehensive health services, including sexual and reproductive health care and mental health care for survivors of SGBV. International law prohibits rape and other forms of sexual violence during armed conflict, including against civilians, members of the armed forces and persons accompanying them, and prisoners of war.
Both Russia and Ukraine are parties to the UN Charter, 1949 Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocol I, European Convention on Human Rights, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and Convention Against Torture, thus requiring both States to abide by certain conduct and protect civilians.
Russia and Ukraine must guarantee humanitarian access for medical supplies and humanitarian organizations offering medical care. Under international law, they also must ensure safety for particularly vulnerable groups, including through providing evacuation corridors, safe passage, and logistical support for civilians who are fleeing to safer areas, especially children, people with disabilities, prisoners, and the elderly. Landmines and cluster munitions should never be used because of their inherently indiscriminate nature.
The Biden administration must also expand its efforts to support refugees, asylum seekers, and internally displaced people from Ukraine. To date, the Biden administration has been summarily expelling Ukrainians arriving at the United States border seeking refuge, along with people from other countries. PHR continues its call on the administration to end Title 42 expulsions and to ensure protection from deportation for Ukrainians already in the United States through Temporary Protected Status, Deferred Enforced Departure, and Special Student Relief for Ukraine.
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.