WASHINGTON // Syria was the most dangerous place for health care workers to operate last year, ahead of other conflict zones like the Palestinian territories, and Yemen, the World Health Organisation said on Thursday.
Nearly 960 people have been killed worldwide in attacks on medical facilities in conflicts over the past two years, the UN health agency said in a report that highlighted an alarming disrespect for the protection of health care in war by both governments and armed groups.
In its most comprehensive study of such attacks around the globe, WHO detailed 594 attacks on hospitals and clinics in the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere in 2014 and 2015. A total of 959 medics, support staff, patients and visitors were killed and more than 1,500 injured in those attacks.
Syria, ravaged by a devastating five-year conflict, tallied the largest number of attacks on health care – 228 in the two-year span – accounting for nearly 40 per cent of the agency’s global tally.
Most disturbingly, the report states that over 60 per cent of the attacks deliberately targeted medical facilities, while 20 per cent were accidental and the rest were undetermined.
“This is a huge problem. Attacks on health workers are not isolated, they are not accidental and they are not stopping,” said Dr Bruce Aylward, the head of emergency response at WHO.
“It is getting more and more difficult to deploy people into these places, it is getting more and more difficult to keep them safe when they are there and it is getting more and more difficult to ensure they survive, let alone recover in crises.”
Over 50 per cent of the attacks were perpetrated by governments, one-third by non-state armed groups and the rest were unknown.
Joanna Liu, head of medical charity Doctors Without Borders, warned that “the act of providing healthcare itself is under attack”.
“From Yemen to Syria, from Central African Republic to Niger, health facilities are looted, burned and bombed,” she told the WHO gathering.
“Patients are slaughtered in their beds. Health workers are abducted, assaulted and killed.”
She said that last year alone, 75 hospitals managed or supported by the charity, which goes by its French acronym MSF, were attacked.
“Medicine should not be a deadly occupation,” she said.
Targeting hospitals, doctors and patients constitutes a war crime, according to the Geneva Conventions. The UN Security Council has denounced the attacks and demanded that all parties in conflicts protect medical facilities, but some of the Council’s most powerful members have themselves been associated with these crimes.
US forces struck a clinic in Afghanistan last year, killing 42 people, in what the Pentagon said was a mistake caused by human error.
Syrian president Bashar Assad and the Russian forces that back him have been accused of deliberately striking hospitals to make life in opposition-held areas unlivable.
“It’s an absolutely devastating breakdown of this long-held norm – protection and respect of health care,” said Susannah Sirkin, a director at the New York-based Physician for Human Rights.
WHO said it was important to continue documenting the attacks and the health effects they have on the communities where they are perpetrated. The agency also called for advocacy work on the international as well as local level to prevent such crimes.
“We must ensure that health care is provided universally during emergencies to all those who need it, in safety, unhindered by violence or obstruction,” the report said.
* Associated Press and Reuters