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UN Security Council Calls for End to Attacks on Doctors, Hospitals

Resolution passed today echoes Physicians for Human Rights’ call to defend health workers and facilities worldwide

For Immediate Release

The United Nations Security Council today unanimously adopted a resolution calling for an end to attacks on health care workers and facilities. Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), which advocates for the protection of medical facilities and health workers worldwide, welcomes today’s vote, reaffirming that deliberately attacking hospitals and doctors is a war crime.

“There is no justification for targeting doctors and nurses who are already putting their own lives on the line to save others,” said Susannah Sirkin, PHR’s director of international policy and partnerships. “We cannot allow attacks on health care to become the new normal. This resolution is a reminder that if you target health workers and hospitals during warfare, you are a war criminal, plain and simple.”

Today’s resolution reaffirms the principle of medical neutrality enshrined in the Geneva Conventions – that medical workers and medical facilities cannot be targeted in warfare – and it reminds UN member states of their duty to investigate and prosecute any and all attacks on health care. But PHR warned that putting those words into action will require the Security Council to act when member states are unable or unwilling to do so.

“Countless times we’ve seen states fail in their obligation to protect health and to prosecute war criminals,” said PHR’s Sirkin. “The resolution has passed, but it must be enforced. The Security Council must be prepared to refer attacks on health care to the International Criminal Court as appropriate. Otherwise, leaders like Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad will continue to rain bombs down on hospitals and clinics without fear of consequences.”

Today’s resolution does not specifically mention Syria, but the agreement comes less than a week after a major pediatric care center in an opposition-held section of Aleppo came under attack, killing scores of people and severely limiting pediatric care for an entire section of the city. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon today cited PHR's documentation of the deliberate killing of 730 medical workers and 359 attacks on health care facilities in Syria since 2011.

“Attacks on health care have deadly ripple effects,” said Sirkin. “Doctors die, medical workers are wounded, and hospitals are taken out of commission. These assaults deprive entire communities of health care and cause many more people to suffer. In times of crisis, hospitals are meant to be safe havens, not battlegrounds.”

Strikes on medical facilities and personnel have become hallmarks of conflicts not just in Syria, but also in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, South Sudan, and Yemen. The UN Secretary-General has repeatedly said humanitarian and health care workers must be protected – and those who attack them must be held to account.

“The Security Council’s agreement today give us hope, but we know that without actions to back them up, words alone won’t save lives,” said PHR’s Sirkin. “The Security Council must act when health care becomes a target. The Council’s credibility is on the line.”

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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