Syria: UN ‘gravely concerned’ over repeated attacks on hospitals, school

Destroyed buildings line a street – which is flooded with algae-covered, debris-filled water – in the Old City area of Homs, the capital of Homs Governorate, Syria. Photo: UNICE/Nasar Ali

16 February 2016 – The United Nations human rights office today expressed grave concern over airstrikes yesterday in Syria that hit at least four hospitals and a school, reportedly killing more than 45 people and injuring dozens of others.

“We are gravely concerned about these abhorrent and repeated attacks on medical facilities in the Syrian conflict,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) spokesperson Rupert Colville told the regular news briefing in Geneva.

He said that in Maarat al-Numan, in Idlib Governorate, two hospitals were attacked, including one supported by Medecins Sans Frontieres, which was reportedly hit by four missiles, allegedly killing nine people and injuring 30 others. The National Hospital in Maarat al-Numan was also hit, with three people reported killed and six injured.

A mother-and-child hospital in the town of Azaz, some 30 kilometres from Aleppo, was also struck yesterday, with 13 people killed and dozens injured. The facility, which is supported by the UN, had been previously struck on 25 December 2015. A second hospital in the town, the General Hospital, was also struck, with seven people killed and 23 injured. Both hospitals are well-known facilities, Mr. Colville noted.

Also in Azaz, a school that was sheltering internally displaced people was hit in yesterday's strikes, reportedly killing 14 people.

“While it is not yet clear whether these facilities were intentionally targeted, the sheer number of incidents raises huge question marks about the failure of the parties to the conflict to respect the special protections afforded to medical facilities and personnel under international humanitarian law,” the OHCHR spokesperson said.

He stressed that customary international humanitarian law affords special protection to hospitals, medical units and healthcare personnel, and Article 3, common to the four Geneva Conventions of 1949 – which is binding on all parties to the conflict in Syria – requires the wounded and sick be collected and cared for.

“Depending on the circumstances, an airstrike on a hospital may constitute a war crime. Intentionally directing attacks against hospitals and places containing the sick and the wounded and against medical units using the Red Cross or Red Crescent emblem is a war crime, in a non-international armed conflict,” Mr. Colville said.

Attacks on hospitals and other medical facilities in Syria began as far back as the beginning of 2012. A 13 September 2015 report by the Commission of Inquiry on Syria, entitled “Assault on medical care in Syria,” listed an appalling litany of attacks on hospitals and medical units over the past four years, as well as numerous examples of the sick and wounded being deliberately denied medical assistance, primarily by Government forces and pro-Government militias.

The report also cited what it termed “one of the most insidious trends of the armed violence in Syria” – namely, the targeting of health-care personnel, with ambulance drivers, nurses, doctors and medical volunteers attacked, arrested, unlawfully detained, and disappeared.

The OHCHR spokesperson said the escalation of the conflict in and around Aleppo is of grave concern, with civilians continuing to suffer the consequences. Air and ground strikes by different parties – including airstrikes conducted by Syrian and Russian planes, as well as ground operations by Syrian Government forces and their allies, and by armed opposition groups – have led to the destruction of essential civilian infrastructure such as medical facilities and bakeries, rendering life even more difficult for civilians in many towns and villages across the governorate.

As of yesterday, 58,000 internally displaced people were at the Syrian/Turkish border, many of them in camps, with the figures increasing daily, the spokesperson said. Several villages in the northern rural part of the governorate are reported to be almost empty due to people fleeing over the last week.

Mr. Colville said that the population of Aleppo is in dire need of an immediate ceasefire and unhindered humanitarian assistance. Without it, the tens of thousands of civilians remaining in towns and villages across the governorate will be left vulnerable to aerial attacks, mass killings, and destruction of the remaining infrastructure and will be deprived of badly-needed assistance.


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