This post originally appeared in The Huffington Post.
On December 23, a paramedic with the civil defense, or White Helmets, was killed by Syrian government shelling while aiding the wounded in al Nashabiya, a small town in besieged Eastern Ghouta, in the Damascus suburbs. Three others were killed and 13 injured during that assault.
Nine months earlier, just a few miles away, journalist Noureddine Hashim was photographing first responders picking through the rubble from a Syrian government air raid in Arbin, east of Damascus, when President Bashar al-Assad’s forces unleashed a second attack. The 21-year-old correspondent for Al Etihad Press was killed, along with at least 10 other civilians.
It is no coincidence that this medic and this reporter were on the front lines. Many health professionals and journalists have given their lives saving others or documenting the horrors of conflict for the wider world.
In doing so they are supposed to enjoy a protected status on the battlefield. But in Syria, where the crisis marked its fifth year this month, health workers and journalists are deliberately targeted. The special protections afforded to medical staff and facilities are flouted with impunity. Journalists are spies to be shot or kidnapped for ransom or gruesome propaganda videos. Doctors are regularly attacked and their work places systematically targeted.
These attacks especially alarm us at the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), as they undermine international legal and human rights protections for journalists and health workers in dangerous environments. Targeting them also means multiplying the war’s ghastly effects, whether that is compromising civilians’ access to lifesaving health care or to critical information.
All civilians, including journalists, are shielded against direct attack under international humanitarian laws, or the laws of war. In addition to these blanket protections awarded to all civilians, medical professionals, facilities, and aid providers receive additional special protections – a reflection of how vital these services are. The continuous, deliberate attacks against them cross the lines set by the Geneva Conventions and constitute war crimes.
Syria is a dangerous place for everyone. An estimated 400,000 people have died as a direct result of the conflict, not to mention the tens or even hundreds of thousands who have died from lack of access to health care, malnutrition, or in desperate attempts to reach safety. Last month, at least 45 people were killed and dozens wounded when at least four hospitals and a school were attacked in northern Syria.
Reporters, photographers, and other journalists give us a window into Syria, exposing or confirming atrocities such as chemical weapons attacks and the barrel-bombing of civilians. Doctors, nurses, and other health professionals are often the first to witness the horrific injuries and effects of the war. They save lives and treat the sick and wounded regardless of their religion, ethnicity, or political affiliation. In Syria’s opposition-controlled areas, the government targets them in order to make life unbearable for anyone living outside its control.
The Syrian government is overwhelmingly responsible for the deliberate attacks on medical facilities – 2015 was the worst year on record for these assaults, with at least 112 facilities attacked. PHR has documented attacks on medical care for 30 years, but the scale and brutality of the attacks on Syrian medical facilities and health professionals is unparalleled. More than 700 medical personnel in Syria have been killed over the last five years. The doctors who have risked their lives to remain there have been decimated by Assad’s forces, which consider it a crime punishable by death to provide medical treatment to “the other side.”
At least 93 journalists have been killed since the conflict began, 12 of them specifically targeted because they were journalists. While the spate of journalist abductions has dipped from the high seen in 2013, some 25 journalists – including six from Western countries – are missing. The drop in kidnappings is attributable in part to the fact that Syria is just too dangerous, and fewer foreign journalists are going there. Even when journalists flee into exile they are not safe. Three courageous reporters who defied ISIS and tried to report independently on life inside the Islamic State were hunted down in neighboring Turkey and brutally murdered in separate attacks.
When those who expose wrongdoing and treat the vulnerable become the enemy, we can be sure that tyranny and cruelty are at work. All sides must agree on one basic principle: international law must be upheld. Noncombatants – including doctors and journalists – must be protected.
The laws and UN resolutions to protect medics and journalists exist. It is now up to governments and the United Nations to enforce them and stop this barbarity.
Follow Donna McKay on Twitter: www.twitter.com/DMcKayPHR