Attacking Health Care: A Common Denominator in Conflict

Last week, Human Rights Watch reported that the Iraqi government repeatedly targeted and attacked Fallujah General Hospital in Anbar province. Fallujah is a pivotal city in Sunni-majority Anbar province, which has long accused the Shia-dominated central government of persecution. In January 2014, political tensions that had been simmering for over a year escalated into outright violence between paramilitary groups and Iraqi security forces.

Although the government has denied attacking Fallujah General Hospital, the weapons used in the attacks – mortar shells, direct fire weapons, and barrel bombs – are consistent with Iraqi military equipment. In deliberately attacking the hospital, the government of Iraq has unfortunately followed the nefarious example of its Syrian neighbor.

The conflicts in Syria and Iraq possess unique traits, but they share some underlying factors. Both conflicts began as a series of peaceful protests advocating for reform over legitimate grievances. Both witnessed largely peaceful movements hijacked by extremists. Now, both governments have violated international law by attacking medical facilities, which are specially protected entities under the laws of war. As is often the case, innocent civilians have suffered the highest costs in these conflicts.

Whether a country is run by a brutal dictatorship like the Assad regime or claims to be a nascent democracy as Iraq does, the decision to inflict maximum suffering on a civilian population by decimating the local health care system is inexcusable. Nothing justifies intentional attacks on health care workers who pledge to heal the sick and injured regardless of political affiliation. The international community must uphold international law and not allow this to become the new norm in conflict. Perpetrators must face justice and be held accountable for targeting the health community in Iraq, Syria, and beyond.

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